That time in 1965 when a teen Ray Kurzweil made a computer compose music and met LBJ
At age 17, Ray Kurzweil – he of the “singularity” – wrote a pioneering piece of “AI” music software, and showed it off on a TV show with Steve Allen.
In times when immigration and education are under attack in many places in the world, consider the story of young Ray Kurzweil. The child of secular Jews who made it out of Austria before the second World War, he grew up in Queens and attended public schools and got rare access to early computers via a government program. (And yeah, that’s another Queens kid – alongside Bob Moog, who got his public education at Bronx High School of Science.)
And at age 17, Ray had a secret – as shown off on the TV show, hosted by Steve Allen.
Incredibly, Kurzweil took an interest in AI and corresponded with Marvin Minsky even before anyone knew what it was – and saw one of the first perceptrons (early AI hardware, originating the notion of the neural net).
Even before he got access to mainframes, he constructed his own computer – out of bits at Canal Street. And he worked out a model for some early computer-generated music. I’m hugely interested to know more about what the heck this thing is, as it’s hard to tell from the video above, but here’s a description from a 1995 interview for the now-defunct “nerdworld”. (I don’t miss the 90s, but I do sometimes miss the 90s Internet.)
I built some computer-like devices with electrical parts I would buy down on Canal Street in New York. You could buy these telephone relays that were primary electrical devices I could use to implement logical circuits.
NW: So you built a whole computer?
I built this computer-like device when I was twelve for a junior high school science fair. I also started programming in Fortran. So when I was about 14 and 15 I built another computer — my first pattern recognition project. I programmed it to analyze melodies of a particular composer and then compose original melodies in that style using pattern recognition principles. That was my Westinghouse Science Talent Search Project (winners went to Washington and met President Johnson). After that [it went] to the International Science Fair, where it got first prize.
The whole interview is fascinating:
(There’s more in an old C-SPAN video, too.)
Henry Morgan, who guesses the answer, was evidently a regular on the show – a humorist who started as a radio page, a second cousin of Alan Jay Lerner, a victim of the infamous Communist blacklist. What a country.
But yeah, that prize won a young Ray Kurzweil a fun field trip to DC and a chance to meet President Lyndon Johnson.
There’s a fascinating archive Mr. Kurzweil has compiled with ephemera of that trip:
Here and at top, apparently the brainiac bunch of kids are discovering that our future is – uh – looking like some big tube. And here they are at the White House:
What’s he up to now? Well, the singularity may or may not be any closer, but you can probably blame him for that Gmail auto-complete.
Interested in AI, and in Montreal at the moment? You should definitely come visit us here on Saturday:
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