Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. One of the leading inventors of our time, he is the principal developer behind major inventions like the CCD flat-bed scanner, omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, and the first text-to-speech synthesizer.
I asked him for some advice to pass on to entrepreneurs today. A renowned futurist, he recommends looking beyond the limitations that everybody else sees and trying to predict the capabilities of the technologies related to your innovation over the next several years.
To hear more of his thoughts on where technologies are heading, you can see him in person on October 18, 2012 at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. Friends of MaRS receive a 20 percent discount! For tickets, click here and use promo code MARS20.
MaRS: You wrote your first computer program at age 15, and founded and sold your first company when you were 20 years old. What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who want to start businesses today?
Ray: It is much easier today than it was when I was 15 or 20 to create meaningful technology and launch a successful business. Consider that college kids armed only with notebook computers started Google and Facebook. The tools of innovation are in everyone’s hands. The ability to reach the market is also available to everyone. One advantage of being young is that you haven’t been taught yet what supposedly cannot be done. That’s a good thing.
One piece of advice that I consistently give entrepreneurs at any age is to predict the capabilities of the technologies that are relevant to your innovation over the next several years. One of my primary themes is that these fundamental measures of information are predictable and exponential. Aim for what is not yet cost effective today, but what will become cost effective over the next several years.
MaRS: What do you think is the most important trait of successful entrepreneurs?
Ray: An ability to see beyond the assumptions and limitations that most everyone else believes to be true. Also, a willingness to fail and learn from your mistakes.
MaRS: What were your biggest hurdles in commercializing your inventions and how did you overcome them?
Ray: I realized that it was not enough to simply invent a breakthrough technology and give impressive demos. I had to develop organizations that could bring these inventions to a mass market. My approach was to develop relatively small organizations—generally no more than 200 people—and then sell my company to a larger organization that could make it successful on a very large worldwide scale. The first company I sold this way (to Xerox) is now Nuance, a $10 billion company with leading speech technologies.
MaRS: Do you invest in startups? If so, what do you look for in a company?
Ray: Yes, I do early-stage investing and mentoring. One thing I look for is an understanding of what I call the “law of accelerating returns,” which is the predictable exponential growth of information technology. Business and technology plans need to be appropriate for future realities that will be very different from today’s realities, even just a few years from now. Consider that just a few years ago people didn’t use wikis, blogs or social networks—the world is going to continue changing at a very fast pace.
MaRS: Scientists are inspired in all kinds of ways. Can you describe your most memorable “Eureka!” moment?
Ray: I’ve timed my technology projects based on the technology forecasting I describe above. But it’s not always clear when I start out what these technologies will be good for.
In 1974 I had a technique that could recognize printed letters in any type font. It was a solution in search of a problem. Then I happened to sit next to blind guy on a plane who was saying that blindness was not really a significant problem and that he flew around the world representing his company as he was doing then. But then he corrected himself, saying that there was one handicap associated with the disability of blindness: the inability to read ordinary printed documents.
I realized from this conversation that I could apply the omni-font optical character recognition that I had developed to the blind reading problem. We made that a priority, and on January 13, 1976, we announced the world’s first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind.
MaRS: Over the past 20 years we’ve seen huge advances and changes as a result of new technologies. Have we levelled off or will technology continue to iterate at this pace?
Ray: Technology is getting faster and faster. The printing press took 400 years to reach a mass audience. The telephone reached a quarter of the United States population in 50 years. The cellphone did that in seven years. Wikis, blogs and social media did that in three years. This acceleration will continue.
MaRS: Twenty years ago nobody had a cellphone and now they’re ubiquitous. What will be the new gadget that everybody has 20 years from now?
Ray: Within the next five to 10 years, we won’t be carrying around rectangular objects called smartphones and notebook computers. The images will be written directly to our retinas from special glasses and lenses. Sounds will be fed directly into our ears. We’ll provide input through gesturing and speech. We’ll continually be in augmented and virtual reality. In about 20 years, these capabilities will move inside the nervous system.
MaRS: What kind of company will be the global tech giant 20 years from now?
Ray: The most important technology to be developed over the next two decades is human-level artificial intelligence (AI). This AI will inherently be more capable than unenhanced humans because it will be able to apply its intelligence to all human knowledge. We are going to merge with this technology, bringing it into ourselves. We’ll be able to expand our thinking into the cloud, the vast interconnected network of computing that will itself grow exponentially. Companies that can develop and exploit these types of technologies will be the most important companies.