"The Muse Is in the Software"

Published: November 24, 2003
The New York Times

"INVENTING is about catching the wave," said Ray Kurzweil, who addressed a national convention of inventors in Philadelphia last Monday. "Most inventions fail not because the inventor can't get them to work but because the invention comes at the wrong time."

Mr. Kurzweil should know. An inventor in the field of artificial intelligence, he has started and sold several companies for millions of dollars.

On Nov. 11, Mr. Kurzweil and John Keklak, an engineer, received patent No. 6,647,395, covering what Mr. Kurzweil calls a cybernetic poet. Essentially, it is software that allows a computer to create poetry by imitating but not plagiarizing the styles and vocabularies of human poets.

It works something like a cyberblender. The poetically challenged (or those with temporary writer's block) can toss in rhymes and rhythms and alliterations from already written poems. These whir around a bit, then out pours a new poem.

Here is a poem the cybernetic poet wrote after "reading" poems by Wendy Dennis, a poet employed by Mr. Kurzweil:

	Sashay down the page
	through the lioness
	nestled in my soul.

While other poetry-generating software exists, Mr. Kurzweil said, it is less sophisticated.

"Those are fixed, fill-in-the-blank approaches that resemble the Mad Libs game," he said. "They are not really trying to create new patterns based on a more flexible pattern structure."

Many of Mr. Kurzweil's inventions, including the cybernetic poet, are based on pattern recognition. "The real power of human thinking is based on recognizing patterns," he said. The better computers get at pattern recognition, the more humanlike they will become.

Mr. Kurzweil said he knew he wanted to be an inventor from the age of 5. By the time he was 16, he had invented a computer that composed melodies based on pattern recognition. He and his melody-generating machine appeared on the television show "I've Got a Secret."

By the age of 28, he had invented a print-to-speech reading machine for the blind that caught the attention of the composer and performer Stevie Wonder.

Mr. Kurzweil's talk in Philadelphia was a significant change of pace for last week's two-day conference, sponsored by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Other speakers covered the nitty-gritty of "claim construction" and "prior art" while Mr. Kurzweil mused about the brave new world of technology.

Were he not such a successful entrepreneur, Mr. Kurzweil might be considered something of a crackpot. In his book "The Age of Spiritual Machines'' (Penguin, 2000), he envisions a world in the near future where computers superannuate humans - they compose music and poetry, have sex with each other, and achieve a humanlike consciousness.

"We will cross the threshold where we have hybrid or nonbiological humans," Mr. Kurzweil said in a phone interview last week. "Our biological thinking is fixed. But our nonbiological thinking" - by which he means machine intelligence - "will grow exponentially."

Mr. Kurzweil roams from the philosophical to the practical. During his talk in Philadelphia, he offered practical tips on how inventors can harness their ideas.

He advocates what he calls lucid dreaming - harnessing the unconscious to work on problems while sleeping.

"When I go to sleep I assign myself a problem, without trying to solve the problem," he said. Then during his waking moments, between consciousness and slumber, he revisits the problem. "It is a great time for creative thinking," he said. "You can think of new connections, new approaches that you wouldn't otherwise think of."

So does Mr. Kurzweil predict that his cybernetic poet will "catch the wave"?

"This is a useful aid to real-life poets looking for inspiration or for help with alliteration or rhyming," he said. "But I am not intending for it to be a huge money maker."

A version of the cybernetic poet can be downloaded free from www.kurzweilcyberart.com. The deluxe version is $29.95.

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