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Dream Job: Inventor

Soul and Silicon

"Imagine a world where the difference between man and machine blurs, where the line between humanity and technology fades, and where soul and silicon unite. This is not science fiction, but a very real possibility in a few short decades."

Those words wouldn't command much authority if their author, Raymond C. Kurzweil, hadn't already proven himself as a high-tech visionary - an inventor who designs and makes the machines that will alter our future.

Nearly everyone would like to create something unique, but Kurzweil has developed a remarkable system for doing it. "I do all my work while I'm sleeping. Every night before I go to sleep I think about an issue and think about a solution," he said.

"In the twilight stage, while I'm dreaming, that's the most creative time. All the sensors in your head are relaxed. I think about the issue again in the morning and can write a whole chapter of a new book, write a speech or come up with a new invention in just a few minutes."

That may sound far-fetched, but consider the fact that Kurzweil, a 1970 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, invented the first commercial computer system that responds to spoken commands and the first print-to-speech machine to read to the blind.

"The thing that excites me the most is having an impact on people's lives," said Kurzweil, who received last year's National Medal of Technology, the country's highest award for technological innovation. "Our machines have helped tens of thousands of blind people."

His father, who was a concert pianist, conductor, and composer, predicted that Kurzweil would eventually combine his interest in music and computers. "I've always wanted to be an inventor, since age 4," Kurzweil said. "When I was 12 I built my own computer. I went to the used electronic parts stores on Canal Street in New York and found the parts."

In high school, he started experimenting with pattern recognition. "I built a computer that could write melodies in the same style as a piece by Mozart," he said. Ever since that time, he's pursued his fascination with pattern recognition, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

"I wanted to model the real world inside the computer," said Kurzweil. He eventually developed music synthesizers, and founded two speech recognition companies that he sold for over $70 million. Today, one of his inventions, the Kurzweil 1000 computer system, is used in thousands of schools around the country by blind people, who scan a book into the computer and then listen to the machine read the text out loud.

The CEO of Kurzweil Technologies, an incubator in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has enjoyed the fruits of his labor: he met President Clinton to receive the national award. "It was very gratifying to be recognized, but it's even more satisfying when I get a letter from a blind student saying they were able to get their education because of the Kurzweil reading machine," he said.

Kurzweil is also a prolific writer, a Carl Sagan of the computer world, committed to explaining his ideas with popular books such as The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.

And he still is coming up with new ideas. One of his newer companies is applying pattern recognition to the stock market with a new program he designed. "It's able to predict what the stock market is going to do," Kurzweil said.

Is he going to sell the new program to the public? Fat chance. Instead of making it available to everyone, Kurzweil is organizing an investment fund around the new software program.