Saturday, May 31, 2008

Interesting, intriguing interview with Ray Kurzweil

It is early on Saturday morning and I’m buzzing. No, it’s not due to the second cup of coffee I’m enjoying right now. I awoke around 3 a.m. and tried without success to go back to sleep. Resigned to staying awake for a while, I grabbed the TV remote and began flipping through programs. There were a number of news talk shows airing the latest flap in the Democratic Presidential race and I finally found an episode of The Brady Bunch to dull my senses, hoping to relax me back to sleep. However, when that show ended, it was 4 a.m. and I began surfing channels again.

I then stumbled upon a program that instantly energized me. When I heard the host say that he had been trying to get his next guest on for the last ten years, I became curious. But, when he announced his guest’s name, I knew I was going to be up for awhile and was beyond going back to sleep. I got up and put on the coffee so that I could take it all in.

I’ll bet that my ears visibly jumped. I was immediately pumped up when I heard that Ray Kurzweil was the guest on the
Glenn Beck show
on CNN Headline News. This was a repeat of the show's original broadcast from the night before, Friday, May 30, 2008.

I don’t know if CNN airs entire one-hour shows such as Beck’s online, but if they don’t, they should make an exception for this one. It is a riveting exchange with this fascinating man. However, if you missed the program and cannot see it in any re-airing, you can
Read the show’s transcripts here.

If you are not familiar with his name, Kurzweil is an author, inventor, futurist, and man of many other appropriate titles, but most of all, I believe that he’s one of the smartest men of our time. His name is synonymous with assistive technology. One of the first pieces of AT that I purchased was a Kurzweil Reading Edge, a stand alone optical character recognition (OCR) scanner that sold for more than $5,000 in late 1994. I remember that being the year when I made that purchase, because I made it shortly after leaving the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, which is where I first learned about that innovative machine.

Kurzweil is in high demand as a speaker at numerous conferences and events whose subjects range on a variety of issues from music to science. While the conferences might vary, his focus always centers on information technology. If you didn’t catch it in my recent post, He was one of the two noted keynote speakers at this year’s CSUN.

I mentioned that I had purchased my Reading Edge in 1994. That might have sounded like cutting edge technology for that year, but that invention was actually already two decades old at that time. Kurzweil invented the world’s first character recognition machine that was the size of a washing machine and sold the first model in 1976. Watch the interview or read that transcript to hear how that whole idea evolved. I think you’ll find it interesting.

(Extra credit if you can guess the name of the first customer of this product. Read to the end of this post for the answer.)

Later in the Beck show, Kurzweil demonstrated the latest incarnation of his reading machine, the
KNFB Reader.
He scans a document and lets the product do its thing, reading on the show for the entire world to see and hear. Kurzweil does promote the KNFB Reader for its dual purposes of assisting people who are both blind/visually impaired and dyslexic. To emphasize this aspect, he shows the phone’s screen to demonstrate how the words being read from the scanned document are highlighted, and how the highlights move as the speech progresses.

Thing about what that says. From a behemoth, washing machine model to a four-ounce cell phone that can be held in the palm of your hand in just over 30 years…Wow!

To understand the evolution of that OCR system is to understand most of what Kurzweil discusses. Exponential growth is key to understanding how things evolve in our world. Kurzweil is a highly intelligent man, but in this interview, he doesn’t come across as an overly intellectual person speaking in language that the layperson can’t understand. With Beck providing the questions, Kurzweil explains his understanding of life and technology in very understandable terms.

Don’t even get the idea that Kurzweil is one-dimensional. Kurzweil speaks of many things during this program and assistive technology is just one of them. I mentioned that he is a futurist. Don’t confuse that with some flaky person who says they are a fortuneteller. Futurists examine history, technology, and trends on several planes and make predictions from the understanding gleaned from that examination. Kurzweil’s been doing this for thirty years and has been pretty accurate on many fronts.

Here are a few points from this interview I find totally intriguing.

* Exponential growth is based on numbers doubling and the time needed to do this.

* The energy produced by the sun is more than 10,000 times to power needed to support our world today.

* Solar power technology is doubling every two years.

* We are only five years from solar power being more affordable than current coal or gas.

* We are only seven doublings away from solar energy being the dominant power supply for our earth.

If you can find it, do check out the interview. You’ll discover that there is a good discussion of health and the integration of technology with our bodies, as well as a good delving into the subjects of fossil fuels, computers, information storage, global economics, and even briefly touches on the applications of information technology as it applies to terrorism. You'll also learn a little bit about Kurzweil himself.

And, here’s your extra credit answer: Kurzweil sold his first character recognition machine to Stevie Wonder. The two forged a friendship from this that led to further collaboration. The offspring of this work was the invention of the world’s first electronic piano.

By the way, my coffee’s now all gone and I’m still buzzing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!