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Tom Simonite

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What Google Sees in New Hire, Futurist Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil is best known for predictions of immortality but has also created speech recognition technology

  • December 15, 2012

Ray Kurzweil, notable for developing some early speech and text recognition software, and more recently for his views about the singularity and defeating aging, has joined Google. Kurzweil’s press release says he’ll be working on “new projects involving machine learning and language processing.” Google has recently made major improvements to its speech recognition using new techniques based on models inspired by biological neurons (see “Google Puts its Virtual Brain Technology to Work”), an approach Kurzweil has written about. A Google spokesperson just sent me this statement from the company’s director of research Peter Norvig, a well-known computer scientist in the field of artificial intelligence:

“Ray’s contributions to science and technology, through research in character and speech recognition and machine learning, have led to technological achievements that have had an enormous impact on society – such as the Kurzweil Reading Machine, used by Stevie Wonder and others to have print read aloud. We appreciate his ambitious, long-term thinking, and we think his approach to problem-solving will be incredibly valuable to projects we’re working on at Google.”

Kurzweil’s recent work as a “futurist”  and his ideas about how soon artificial intelligences will match that of humans (the Turing test will fall in 2029, he says) and how human lifespan will be dramatically extended (by 2050, thanks to nanotechnology) are more controversial. Some artificial intelligence researchers disagree with Kurzweil’s predictions (including Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, see “The Singularity Isn’t Near” and Kurzweil’s response “Don’t Underestimate the Singularity”), and his recent book on the basis of human intelligence has drawn criticism from some academics.

However, Kurzweil’s achievements in improving the ability of computers to understand speech and text are widely accepted. It’s too soon for Kurzweil or Google to say much about what he’ll do at the company, but it’s a reminder that the company wants to put computers that understand humans at the heart of its products, from smartphone assistant Google Now (see “Google’s Answer to Siri Thinks Ahead”), to its online ads.

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