January 29, 2009 Ray Kurzweil is one of the most amazing intellectuals and inventors of our time. From his teenage years he's been building a long list of extraordinary achievements, from his early work teaching computers to compose music, to his world-first font-independent optical character recognition system, to his pioneering electric synthesizers that are so accurate that even musicians can't discern them from a real piano in listening tests. In 1976, blind music legend Stevie Wonder bought the first production model of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a tabletop-sized device that was able to scan text documents and read them out using a text-to-speech engine. Last year, Kurzweil teamed up with Nokia to integrate the reading machine and its synthetic voice into the N82 mobile phone, letting blind or illiterate users read documents, menus, bills, and anything else they could capture on the phone's inbuilt camera. Now, Kurzweil has announced that the kReader phone can translate text it captures that's in another language and read it out to you in your language. It also has new text-tracking abilities to make it even easier to capture all the text on a page.
Forbes magazine once referred to him as "the ultimate thinking machine" - and Ray Kurzweil has applied his mental machinery to a staggering array of high level projects in his 60 years on the planet. His work and writings explore the outer reaches of a dizzying array of fields - but center particularly around a future in which artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence - and humans lose their spot at the top of the evolutionary tree to computers that can think, feel, work and evolve exponentially faster than we can. A man with such a focus on the future has also built a remarkable past - these two short biographies provide a reasonable primer on one of the great thinkers of our time.
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One of his key ventures at the moment is knfb (Kurzweil/National Federation of the Blind) Reading Technology, Inc - which is taking the reading technologies he pioneered in the 1970s and packaging them in handheld units that can photograph text and read it out loud. The significance of this technology in the lives of blind or illiterate users can't be overstated - without any other assistance they can read letters, bills, receipts, menus, books, documents, notes, posters, wrappers, signs and anything else they can point their mobile phone camera at. See these videos for a user's perspective.
The technology was fully integrated into the Nokia N82 mobile phone at the beginning of 2007, and Kurzweil recently announced an upgraded version that extends the technology to be useful even to sighted people - the kReader Mobile system is now able to read text in a variety of languages including English, French, German, Dutch, Belgian Dutch, Italian, and Castilian, and then display and speak a translated version in the user's own language.
Blind users are aided by a new text-tracking feature that helps them position the camera to take in all the text in a block they're trying to read.
The phones are also optimized for use by people with learning and reading disabilities like Dyslexia, incorporating a number of features designed to remove illiteracy as a barrier to normal life and business. As Ray Kurzweil himself put it: "This innovation gives people with learning disabilities a mobile tool to cope with the large amount of reading required in business and everyday life. It gives them easy access to print, almost instantaneously, anywhere and at anytime.”