Speech Pioneer Ray Kurzweil Joins Google

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Google has hired Ray Kurzweil, often credited with the invention of text-to-speech, as its director of engineering.

"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," says Peter Norvig, director of research at Google. "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."

While at Google, Kurzweil will focus on machine learning and language processing, particularly to enhance the company's popular search engine. "My focus will be enabling computers to understand the semantic content of natural language and to use that understanding to enhance Google applications, such as search and question answering. The plan will be to combine my decades of experience in the [artificial intelligence] field with the Google scale [and] resources here in data, computing, and users," Kurzweil tells Speech Technology magazine in an email.

For years, Kurzweil had forecasted that search engines would become more predictive with search results. During his opening keynote at SpeechTEK 2008, Kurzweil said, "We'll have search engines that are like little assistants that won't wait to be asked—if they see you struggling with some information, they'll pop up information."

Industry insiders are reacting favorably to the news. "By hiring Ray Kurzweil, Google has brought on board a person steeped in speech automation, who has also dedicated his professional career to understanding and defining the pace at which machines display human-like and then super- human-like qualities," says Dan Miller, senior analyst and founder of Opus Research. "His vision can be a framework for Google's diverse initiatives around predictive search, natural language understanding, and mobile assistance."

The latter, in particular, could help Google compete against Apple's mobile assistant, Siri, launched on the iPhone 4S. "Google is one of a very short list of companies with the technology and market reach to introduce a powerful mobile assistant," Miller says. "An example is the combination of Google Now with Google Voices to create a personal assistant that 'understands' what a person is saying and presents a number of relevant responses based on location, time of day, previous searches, and, perhaps, the recommendations of friends in a social network."

Some industry observers expect Kurzweil to have a hand in other, more futuristic technology. "He will be an inspiration to Google by providing forward-looking insight, ideas, and suggestions," says Jim Larson, vice president of Larson Technical Services and co-chair of the SpeechTEK conference, who adds that Kurzweil's knowledge will benefit such projects as Google Glass.

Google Glass aims to provide users with wearable glasses that combine augmented reality with reality.

During the 2008 SpeechTEK keynote, Kurzweil predicted the arrival of such wearable technology: "We'll have augmented real reality—we'll see real reality but we'll have virtual reality overlaid on it…. [This technology] will be built into our eyeglasses, so as you look at someone, it will remind you what their name is, that it's their birthday next week."

Google has stated plans to release early prototypes of Google Glass to developers this year and make the augmented reality glasses publicly available in 2014.

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