Inventor Ray Kurzweil was never your typical entrepreneur. His first company developed omni-font optical character recognition, leading to the invention of the flatbed scanner, a technology he later sold to Xerox. He also invented the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition device. Inc. magazine ranked him the #8 entrepreneur in the U.S., calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” But along the way Kurzweil also became an influential futurist, publishing the bestseller The Singularity is Near, which details the moment when human intelligence and artificial intelligence will intersect, making our brains millions of times more powerful than they are today (for the Singularity-clueless, here’s a primer; for the advanced, you can attend the annual Singularity Summit). A documentary about Kurzweil’s life, Transcendent Man premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival, bringing his ideas to the big screen in a prophetic, mind-bending and sometimes quite terrifying light. We caught up with director Barry Ptolemy after Tribeca to find out more about capturing Kurzweil’s genius, and when, exactly, this Singularity thing is going to happen.
AW: Many people only know Ray as this kind of zany dreamer, but I think you really portray him as a problem solver—he sees something wrong and he tries to fix it. Do you still see him as more of an inventor than anything else?
BP: Ray does consider himself first and foremost an inventor. His inventions have been extremely important to many different communities—and being an inventor obviously informs his optimism and his long-time interest in tracking trends. But we personally, believe that Ray will ultimately be best know for his ideas about the future and the potential of humankind. These ideas are bigger and more visionary than anything that has ever come before.
AW: In the film there is a lot of discussion about Ray’s ability to sell an idea. What do you think makes him successful as an entrepreneur?
BP: Ray’s success is largely due to his optimism and tenacity. Ray defines failure as “success, deferred” and this is not just a superficial motto—he truly expects that he will succeed at any given goal (starting a company, refining an invention, transcending death) with the only unknown being how long it will take for him to get there. Also, Ray’s superhuman tenacity and ability to retain and process amazing amounts of information and data are a true gift and very much a reason for his success.
AW: There’s a really touching moment in the film where Ray attends a conference for blind people and debuts a digital reading device—you can see he’s really done a world of good for this community. But there’s also a lot of skeptical commentary from his fellow science and tech leaders (and of course the religious community) about his work, which some see as dangerous. How were you able to balance or fairly explore those two perceptions of him?
BP: It was challenging to balance these two sides of the film, simply because Ray’s ideas are so strong and well-supported with so much data that for a long time it was difficult to find a well-articulated argument against these ideas. We think the antagonists in the film serve an important purpose in mirroring many of the common schools of thought prevalent today.
AW: What was it like working with Ray? Was he excited about getting the word out about his work or worried that this film would somehow distort his message?
BP: I have been in a car with Ray where just for a moment I feel this legendary thinker, this iconic inventor sitting next to me and it feels like I’m in the car with an Edison or an Einstein. I’m still amazed at how much Ray trusted us from the very beginning and I think him giving us total access to his life was incredibly courageous. Though he had no way of knowing whether or not our portrait would be critical or flattering—he believed enough in the power of his ideas and the importance of spreading these ideas to take a huge risk with the film….I think it’s safe to assume we’ll be out with Ray screening the film at various venues helping to achieve his goal of getting his ideas out a wider audience.
AW: The timing of this film couldn’t be better, I think, since the prevalence of Twitter now makes me believe that when everyone’s on Twitter we will have reached the Singularity. Does Ray have any thoughts about when it’s coming? Does he talk about it a lot? Has he dropped any hints about a specific date?
BP: Well, you know he’s asked that question every day. His general answer is 2045. But he has other answers as well that are close to the example you give. For instance he says, “When there’s a million e-mails in your inbox and you’re able to answer them all, you’ll know we will have reached the Singularity.”