The Lemelson-MIT Program announced yesterday that its $500,000 prize -- the world's largest single award for invention and innovation -- will be presented to Raymond Kurzweil (SB 1970), a pioneer of pattern recognition technologies who has made a career of helping others while showing a flair for integrating technology and the arts.
The seventh annual Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award went to Raymond Damadian, inventor of the first magnetic resonance scanner, a noninvasive diagnostic tool used for the early detection of cancer and other diseases.
Mr. Kurzweil's landmark invention is the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which converts print to speech. Musician Stevie Wonder was the first owner of the device, introduced in 1976.
"The Kurzweil Reading Machine was a breakthrough that changed my life," said Mr. Wonder, who helped nominate Kurzweil for the Lemelson-MIT prize. "I could read anything I wanted with complete privacy: music lyrics, letters from my children, the latest best-sellers and magazines, memos from my business associates. It gave blind people the one thing that everyone treasures, which is independence."
It was Mr. Kurzweil's subsequent friendship with Mr. Wonder which led to another major innovation: the Kurzweil 250 Synthesizer (K250). Introduced commercially in 1984, the K250 is the first electronic musical instrument to successfully emulate the complex sound response of a grand piano and virtually all other orchestral instruments.
A native of Queens, NY and the son of a painter and a musician, Mr. Kurzweil aspired to become an inventor early on. At the age of eight, he built a puppet theater with mechanical parts to change the scenery. By the time he was 16, he had built and programmed his own computer to compose original melodies based on patterns in well-known classical works. This invention garnered him an appearance on the TV show I've Got a Secret, the opportunity to meet President Lyndon Johnson as one of 40 Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners, and first prize in the International Science Fair.
As an undergraduate, Mr. Kurzweil took all nine computer courses that were offered. He continued his friendship with artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer Professor Marvin Minsky, who had begun mentoring him a few years earlier. By 1967, at the age of 19, he had started his first company, which invented a computer-based system for matching high school students with colleges. He subsequently sold the company to Harcourt Brace & World for $100,000 plus royalties, enough to pay his own way through MIT and help pay his ailing father's medical expenses.
With fellow MIT student Aaron Kleiner (SB 1969), he has founded eight companies. Mr. Kurzweil graduated in 1970 with degrees in computer science and creative writing, having studied with American playwright Lillian Hellman.
In 1974, Mr. Kurzweil founded the company that created the first "omni-font" (i.e., any type font) optical character recognition (OCR)technology, enabling computers to read and recognize printed or typed characters regardless of typestyle and print quality. In 1975, he was inspired by a chance meeting with a blind man on an airplane to develop the Kurzweil Reading Machine, combining a flatbed scanner with the first text-to-speech synthesizer.
Another Kurzweil company developed the first commercially marketed, large-vocabulary speech recognition technology in 1987, and later created voice activated medical reporting systems used by physicians.
In 1995, he launched Kurzweil Technologies, a research and development "incubator" that creates and markets technologies in pattern recognition, AI and related areas through several companies. One of the companies markets Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet, a software program that creates poetry and enables others to write their own. Another company is creating a virtual-patient program for training physicians and the leading web site for family medicine. Yet another is developing pattern-recognition technology to make stock market investment decisions.
In addition to his entrepreneurial achievements, Mr. Kurzweil started a foundation to provide scholarships to blind students, and he also writes about AI. His latest books are The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press, 1990) and The Age of Spiritual Intelligence, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Viking/Penguin Books, 1999).
Mr. Kurzweil has received the National Medal of Technology (1999), the White House Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence (1986), the award for the Most Outstanding Computer Science Book from the Association of American Publishers (1990), awards from three US presidents and 10 honorary doctorates.
With his tenacity and willingness to defy conventional thought, Dr. Raymond Damadian changed the face of diagnostic medicine through his revolutionary application of nuclear magnetic resonance. The independent inventor built the first magnetic resonance scanner and produced the first scan of the human body, launching the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) industry. Today, MR scanners are used to help in the noninvasive diagnosis of cancer, traumatic injuries and other diseases and infections. For this accomplishment, Dr. Damadian was awarded the 2001 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for invention and innovation.
Dr. Damadian was born in New York City in 1936. The young violinist was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music at the age of eight. Later he was selected as a Ford Foundation Scholar by the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he majored in mathematics with a minor in chemistry. He attended medical school at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx,where he received the MD in 1960. During medical school, he worked summers as a tennis pro at the Dune Deck Hotel in Westhampton, Long Island.
At medical school, Dr. Damadian's early research attempted to uncover the fundamental information about cells' ability to maintain chemical and electrical balance, and to generate electric potentials. He was particularly interested in how the kidney balanced sodium and potassium, the main regulators of biological electricity. He realized that he could use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to study electrochemical differences between healthy and unhealthy tissue.
The discovery that marked the beginning of his invention of the MRI scanner came in 1970, when he analyzed tumors in rats and compared their relaxation rates with normal tissue from the same rats. He discovered that the NMR relaxations (decay rates of the tissue NMR signal) of cancerous tissues were significantly prolonged.
Dr. Damadian made the discovery at NMR Specialties, where he persuaded the company president to let him make some tests using one of its machines. After successfully concluding his experiments, he deduced that if he could detect cancer cells in a test tube, it should be possible to detect cancer cells in a human body. The key challenge was creating an apparatus large enough to scan the humanbody. In 1974 he was issued a patent for the world's first description of a noninvasive device able to scan the human body by magnetic resonance.
With no background in superconducting technology, Dr. Damadian and his students set out to build a 53-inch bore superconducting magnet necessary to make his MR device work. He sought the help of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and designed and built the first full-body human magnetic resonance scanner. That scanner, named Indomitable, is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Damadian's original patent that led to the creation of commercial MRI scanners had "pioneer patent" status, given only to groundbreaking innovations that set the foundation for new industries to occur, and are thus protected by the legal system. Of the magnets used in MRI technology today, the "supercon," the "permanent" and the "iron frame" were all introduced by Dr. Damadian and his collaborators.
Dr. Damadian has received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology in 1988 and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1989.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 25, 2001.