Ray Kurzweil has been selected as the recipient of the 2009 Economist Innovation Award in the category of Computing and Telecommunication for his optical character recognition and speech recognition technology. The awards, described as the "Oscars of Innovation," celebrate individual innovators whose work has had the greatest impact on business and/or society.
Kurzweil is a pioneer in the research and commercialization of optical character recognition (OCR), which is the mechanical or electronic translation of images of handwritten, typewritten or printed text into machine-editable text; and speech recognition technology (also known as automatic speech recognition or computer speech recognition), which converts spoken words into machine-readable input.
According to Andrew Odlyzko, a professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota and one of this year's judges, "Ray Kurzweil has used the advances in basic electronic technologies to pioneer a range of innovative products in optical character recognition, speech recognition, music, text to speech synthesis, and medicine. His vision and sense for how fast technology was progressing led to products that were usually not only first to market, but were commercially successful, and have assisted the handicapped, advanced the arts, and stimulated the imagination of countless other technologists and entrepreneurs. His work is a stellar example of the achievements that The Economist's Innovation Awards are intended to recognise and encourage."
In 1974, Kurzweil launched Kurzweil Computer Products and led development of the first omni-font OCR system, a computer program capable of recognizing text written in any normal font. Prior to this work, scanners only had been able to read text written in a few fonts. In 1978, Kurzweil Computer Products began selling a commercial version of the OCR computer program. Two years later, Kurzweil sold the company to Xerox. The OCR software market has since grown to include several dozen vendors, including Microsoft.
In the 1980s, Kurzweil created Kurzweil Applied Intelligence to develop computer speech recognition systems for commercial use. The first product, launched in 1987, was the world's first large-vocabulary speech recognition program. It allowed users to dictate to their computers via microphone and then have the device transcribe their speech into written text. The company later combined speech recognition technology with medical expert systems to create the Kurzweil VoiceMed (now called Clinical Reporter) product line, which allows doctors to write medical reports by speaking instead of writing. The global market for advanced speech recognition in mobile handsets will increase from US$32.7 million in 2009 to US$99.6 million in 2014 according to a 2009 report by independent market analyst firm Datamonitor.
Kurzweil was inducted in 2002 into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, established by the U.S. Patent Office. He received the US$500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation's largest award in invention and innovation. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology. He continues to work on research in various areas of artificial intelligence.