Ray Kurzweil is best known these days as the world's foremost Singularity evangelist and as a prophet of a whizbang, techno-utopian future. However, Kurzweil first came to tech fame as a machine-learning guru whose groundbreaking work on voice recognition and optical character recognition changed computing and laid the groundwork for everything from Siri to desktop scanners.
Now, Kurzweil has a new home: Google. On Friday, Google announced that Kurzweil is their newest Director of Engineering. Kurzweil started at Google today with a focus on new machine-learning and language-processing projects.
"In 1999, I said that in about a decade we would see technologies such as self-driving cars and mobile phones that could answer your questions, and people criticized these predictions as unrealistic," Kurzweil said in a statement. "Fast forward a decade—Google has demonstrated self-driving cars, and people are indeed asking questions of their Android phones. It’s easy to shrug our collective shoulders as if these technologies have always been around, but we’re really on a remarkable trajectory of quickening innovation, and Google is at the forefront of much of this development."
Google has been investing big dollars and big resources in machine learning and language processing. Overseas expansion requires tailoring Google's product suite to quirks in local language, and the mobile revolution has led to optical recognition becoming an integral component of profit-generating apps. More important, search—Google's bread and butter—is rooted in issues of machine learning. Data mining, the sometimes-creepy information parsing which fuels the ongoing data revolution, is a classic example of machine learning-fueled innovation.
While Kurzweil's public cheerleading for the Singularity (a loosely defined set of future innovations that vaguely promises transforming mankind via technology) is beloved by many Google employees, it's also a sideshow to the reason he was hired. While Google is working on many sci fi-sounding projects such as autonomous, self-driving cars and functional mobile payments, Kurzweil's hire is almost certainly for his decades of machine learning experience . . . and it's unlikely Google is secretly building Skynet. Still, Google does operate a secretive Google X lab, and it seems likely the new executive will pay a visit.
It's also important to note that Google and Kurzweil have an existing business relationship. Google is a donor to Kurzweil's Singularity University thinktank in California, which helps develop new startups specializing in emerging technologies.
[Image: Flickr user Ed Schipul]