Ray Kurzweil: The Secret Superhero of Synthesized Solo Symphonies

Ray Kurzweil has been surprising people with his work in artificial intelligence since he was a teenager in the 1960s, but his greatest contribution to society may not be in computer science, but music, thanks to an unlikely collaboration with another artist who was a prodigious teenage talent who went on to great things: Stevie Wonder. The Motown star’s love of musical innovation, when combined with Kurzweil’s technical skills, led to changes in electronic music that have revolutionized live performance and composition ever since, and led to the most surprising aspect of this remarkable Secret Superhero’s career. 

RAY’S GOT A SECRET

Ray was born in 1948 in New York, into an artistic but poor Jewish family; his father was a pianist, and music teacher, and his mother a visual artist. Despite his parent’s artistic leanings, from an early age Ray showed signs of being more technically minded. He first  announced his intention to become an inventor at the age of five, and he threw himself into this task with great enthusiasm, itemizing the components of the toys he was given so that he could better deploy them in his creations. This prodigious talent for invention began to manifest itself in other ways, too, aided by an uncle who worked at Bell Labs and provided him with access to early computers. Ray first got his hands on computer hardware in 1960, building his first computer for a school science project aged just 12, and by the time he was 15 he had written his first piece of software; albeit one more complex than the traditional “Hello World” opener that constitutes most people’s introduction to coding. Ray started out by writing an artificial intelligence program that analyzed the works of major composers and then composed new music that emulated the patterns it had identified. A couple of years later, aged 17, he was invited on to the CBS panel show “I’ve Got  A Secret” to demonstrate his code, and the contraption he had built to execute it.

Ray Kurzweil: The Secret Superhero of Synthesized Solo Symphonies

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Ray Kurzweil has been surprising people with his work in artificial intelligence since he was a teenager in the 1960s, but his greatest contribution to society may not be in computer science, but music, thanks to an unlikely collaboration with another artist who was a prodigious teenage talent who went on to great things: Stevie Wonder. The Motown star’s love of musical innovation, when combined with Kurzweil’s technical skills, led to changes in electronic music that have revolutionized live performance and composition ever since, and led to the most surprising aspect of this remarkable Secret Superhero’s career. 

RAY’S GOT A SECRET

Ray was born in 1948 in New York, into an artistic but poor Jewish family; his father was a pianist, and music teacher, and his mother a visual artist. Despite his parent’s artistic leanings, from an early age Ray showed signs of being more technically minded. He first  announced his intention to become an inventor at the age of five, and he threw himself into this task with great enthusiasm, itemizing the components of the toys he was given so that he could better deploy them in his creations. This prodigious talent for invention began to manifest itself in other ways, too, aided by an uncle who worked at Bell Labs and provided him with access to early computers. Ray first got his hands on computer hardware in 1960, building his first computer for a school science project aged just 12, and by the time he was 15 he had written his first piece of software; albeit one more complex than the traditional “Hello World” opener that constitutes most people’s introduction to coding. Ray started out by writing an artificial intelligence program that analyzed the works of major composers and then composed new music that emulated the patterns it had identified. A couple of years later, aged 17, he was invited on to the CBS panel show “I’ve Got  A Secret” to demonstrate his code, and the contraption he had built to execute it.

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It was extraordinary that one of the earliest pioneers in artificial intelligence began his career of invention while still a student in a New York public school, and Kurzweil’s progress brought him to the attention of other pioneers in the field. Marvin Minsky, one of the earliest innovators in artificial intelligence and the founder of MIT’s AI laboratory, began corresponding with Kurzweil while he was still in high school, and invited him to study at MIT. Kurzweil didn’t just excel academically while at MIT, but also started to develop products; in 1968, while still a sophomore, he built a computer system called the Select College Consulting Program, which matched high school students to colleges that suited their needs, and then sold it for $100,000 (approximately $750k when adjusted for inflation). His second product launch would prove to be even more successful.

A WONDROUS IDEA

In 1974, Ray founded Kurzweil Computer Systems, and began to tackle a less musical problem; that of teaching computers to read text. Character recognition technology already existed at this time, but it was very limited, and computers could only scan text published in a handful of fonts. Ray set about developing the first omni-font OCR (optical character recognition) system, a computer capable of reading text in any legible font. OCR is a technology with many business applications - the ability to read cheques electronically would soon revolutionize the banking industry - but Ray wanted his technology to benefit people directly, so he built the Kurzweil Reading Machine, an early scanner intended for use by the blind and partially sighted, designed in collaboration with the National Foundation for the Blind. In order to realize this product, Ray also had to invent a new kind of flatbed scanner (the CCD, or “charge-coupled device” scanner). The Reading Machine also employed AI technology to ensure the scanned characters were scanned correctly, and a speech synthesizer, and all of this technology functioned with just 64kb of onboard RAM. Ray demonstrated his extraordinary new device on television, and caught the attention of the most famous blind man on Earth: Stevie Wonder. 

Wonder reached out to Kurzweil and became his company’s first customer, but the pair also became friendly, and would talk frequently about their shared passion for innovation in music. In 1982, this led to a critical conversation at Stevie’s studio, Wonderland, that changed the sound of electronic music forever. Stevie was frustrated by the gap between classical instruments and their electronic counterparts, which sounded tinny and processed,  and asked Ray if there was any way that the AI techniques used to process and error correct speech in the Reading Machine could be employed by a music synthesizer to improve the quality of sounds it produced. Ray began work on this next project, hiring Stevie as a consultant and bringing on board other experts in electronic music, including Robert Moog. The keyboard they built, the Kurzweil K250, changed the landscape of music forever.

Stevie Wonder with Ray and the K250

THE BABIEST GRAND

The K250 had many innovative features, but the one that caught the world’s attention was its ability to mimic real orchestral instruments. In particular, it was the first keyboard to accurately recreate the sound of a grand piano, something Kurzweil confirmed through blind testing: The K250 fooled all experts into thinking they were listening to a real piano. The technical achievement was largely down to Kurzweil’s code, which - as per Stevie Wonder’s suggestion - utilized AI techniques to modulate the dynamics of the audio output, ensuring a wide enough range of tones to emulate a larger piano. Five of the first batch of K250s were specially customized for Wonder, with braille labeling and custom controls and soundbanks, and every K250 had abilities that were unheard of in the keyboard market at that time, with greatly enhanced polyphonic capabilities (the ability to play multiple notes at once), and compositional software that allowed musicians like Stevie to play multiple parts using different sounds, and achieve sounds as a solo performer that would otherwise require an ensemble of accompanying session musicians. 

Ray Kurzweil continues to innovate to this day, and now works at Google in a loosely defined role as a facilitator of machine learning and natural language processing. His team led the “smart reply” feature of Gmail, which uses AI to suggest responses to emails, and he continues to look for new and surprising ways to deploy machine learning to help users directly. What shape that help will take in the future remains to be seen, but Ray’s past as Stevie Wonder’s Secret Superhero makes it clear that whatever Ray decides to develop next is likely to have seismic repercussions. 

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