Talk May Be Cheap, but Ray Kurzweil Stands to Make Millions by Yakking to His Voice Computer

updated 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

No cursing near the computer. That's the rule around Ray Kurzweil's Voiceworks, the latest technological dazzler in word processors. For as little as $5,000 users can sit on their hands as long as they watch their tongues because with Voiceworks what you say is what you get onscreen and later on printout. Imagine speaking at a rate of 50 words a minute (70 if your diction is crystal clear), and telling the computer, "Two times two is not too difficult to compute."

Onscreen you'll see your sentence, spelled perfectly, with the right "too," "twos" and "to." Kurzweil's machine has a vocabulary of 5,000 words (and growing), and it understands and responds to 30 word-processing commands, such as "delete line" and "add word." Voiceworks combines four linguistic programs that understand parts of speech and sentence construction, three acoustic programs wise in the ways we talk and a highly sophisticated "expert" program that makes decisions when the other programs hesitate. Welcome (not well come) to (not 2, too or two) the soul (not sole) of the new (not knew) machine.

Voiceworks, four years in development, is the latest invention from Kurzweil's protean mind. At age 39 he is already a multimillionaire, thanks to earlier wonders, including a computer that reads aloud to the blind and the top-of-the-line Kurzweil 250, a music synthesizer favored by Stevie Wonder and Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's bandleader. Although IBM now says it soon will have its own voice-responsive system on the market, Kurzweil isn't quaking at the prospect of competition from Big Blue. "They've spent more money advertising their product in the past six months than we've spent in the last four years in research and development," he jokes. Both Xerox and Wang Laboratories have so much confidence in Kurzweil and his Voice-works that they have invested $6 million in his company, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence.

Such faith in his ability is no surprise to Kurzweil. "I knew from the age of 5 that I would be a scientist—and an important one," he says. Born and raised in Queens, N.Y., where his father was a symphony conductor and his mother an illustrator, Kurzweil at 12 was writing computer programs that IBM later distributed. In high school he won a Westinghouse Science Talent Search Award for programming a computer to compose music in the style of Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven. As a sophomore at MIT he developed a program that matched student aptitudes with college requirements, which he and a classmate sold to a book publisher for $100,000 plus royalties.

After graduating in 1970 with a degree in computer science and literature (he still finds time to write poetry), Kurzweil developed his Reading Machine for the blind, a computer that reads aloud as it scans print. (One hitch: The machine's voice sounds like a Scandinavian who's just learned English.) Kurzweil sold the machine to Xerox for $6 million in 1980 and two years later started two new companies in Waltham, Mass.: Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (Voiceworks) and Kurzweil Music Systems, both yet to break even.

But now he hankers to be viewed as an entrepreneur as well as an inventor. "Money is power to shape the world," he says. Aaron Kleiner, a friend since MIT and now an executive at Kurzweil's companies, says, "Ray sees himself as an inventor who has an impact with his products, but he wants the financial reward as well." Kurzweil says he emblazons his name on all his companies and products because it "reflects a high degree of confidence. It means I'm not going to walk away from them." And he notes with satisfaction, "People sometimes come up to me and know who I am. Not as often as if I were Paul Newman, but I like it so far."

Greater recognition is likely to come from the exhibition Robots & Beyond: The Age of Intelligent Machines, which illustrates how technological advances are changing the world. Kurzweil donated $650,000 to help bankroll the show, which opened at Boston's Museum of Science last month and will visit seven American cities during the next three years. (Robots includes a short film and later will be accompanied by a book, both written by Kurzweil.)

Married since 1975 to Sonya Rosenwald Fenster, a psychologist, Kurzweil lives in Newton, Mass. with his wife and their children, Ethan, 7, and Amy, 3 months, four computers and one Kurzweil 250 synthesizer. He drives a red Jaguar XJ6 Vanden Plas, with a bicycle rack on the trunk. To keep fit he bicycles along the Charles River with his son on weekends and plays racquet-ball at lunchtime.

Back at his office, Kurzweil is sitting in his swivel chair facing his desktop computer. "Begin session," he instructs it. "Take a memo." As the green screen flickers to life, Kurzweil tells a visitor, "When you first sit down at the Voiceworks, you think, 'Gee, I'm talking to this machine.' But in a matter of minutes, you relax. It's fun to talk to a machine, but the bottom line is that it's less fatiguing than to type." And that leaves Kurzweil with more energy to work on his next project, a decision-making computer. "You tell it your problem when you leave the office at night, and it'll have an answer or a report for you by morning," he predicts.

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