Last night I was watching a Best Buy commercial that featured the inventors of various technologies and features incorporated into the modern Smartphone. Although the inventors appeared and spoke in the ad, some of their names were omitted. I decided to embark on a brief and somewhat superficial research assignment to try to identify who some of these people are.
I was underwhelmed by the inclusion of Words with Friends. I’ve played Words with Friends and it’s fun, the same way that Scrabble is fun. I concluded that the ad didn’t mention the inventors because, to be fair, it would have to go back to the inventors of the board game, rather than the app. So I decided not to investigate.
The ad also fails to name the inventors of Instagram, which is a free photo sharing program that enables users to apply a filter to change the look and feel of a digital photograph, and then share it on social networks. I’ve never used it but proponents say it can add artistry to typical digital images. I am not sure how important this app is to Smartphones, at least relative to other apps, but Facebook obviously saw something there, having paid about $1 billion in cash and stock to acquire Instagram.
At this point the inventor of the text message seems to be a bit more significant to the Smartphone, but they don’t name him either. Texting refers to the exchange of brief written text messages between two or more mobile phones or other devices. Originally texting referred to Short Message Service (SMS), but it now includes MMS messages that feature images, video and sound. Everyone knows what texting is—even if you don’t use it– maybe because of “sexting” by politicians and celebrities, from Congressman Weiner to Tiger Woods. From my “research” I learned from Wikipedia that Raina Fortini may have been the inventor of texting, but Matti Makkonen is considered the father of modern texting because of his contributions to SMS. I have no idea if the person in the ad was one of them or someone else identified as the inventor of texting.
The ad did identify Philippe Kahn by name as the inventor of the camera phone. A little superficial research indicates that in 1997 Kahn did indeed invent the first camera phone for sharing photographs. I guess Mr. Philippe is defensive about the qualifier, which I found a few times in my Google search. In an article posted online in Investor’s Business Daily by Patrick Seitz on March 6, 2007, Kahn said: “The bottom line is that the camera phone is not just a camera and a phone. The camera phone is an instant share infrastructure with a camera on the phone. The ability to share instantly is really the key.”
But the part of the ad that got my attention was its recognition of Ray Kurzweil as a voice recognition pioneer. Now we’re talking. (No pun intended.) I am not sure that Kurzweil’s work on voice recognition has much to do with a Smartphone, but I do know that without his pioneering work in the area in the 1970s and 1980s we probably wouldn’t be where we are today in voice recognition.
I had the privilege of inviting Kurzweil to speak at the second TAG Summit, and I sat next to him at dinner. Between sips of red wine and bites of food, Kurzweill ate about 200 vitamins, pulling them one by one from a plastic sandwich bag. Politely, I asked him why. He explained that the “singularity” was coming, which will allow us to transcend the limitations of our biological bodies and brains. He told me that he was trying to maximize his chance to live long enough for the singularity, and thereby possibly live “forever.”
Kurzweil is not a nut. Indeed many people consider him to be the most successful futurist. Part of his credibility derives from the fact that he is an inventor, and he’s well known for his work in speech recognition, among many other things. In his book, the Age of Spiritual Machines, published in 1999, Kurzweil describes his early use of speech recognition to “create a system that enabled doctors to create their medical reports by simply talking to their computers…. We also introduced a general purpose dictation product called Kurzweil Voice, which enabled users to create written documents by speaking one word at a time to their personal computer.” And it’s particularly cool that this invention, like many of Kurzweill’s inventions, was designed to assist the disabled. (He hoped for a machine that could translate speech and display text on eyeglasses for the hearing-impaired.) Speech recognition may well be the next tech frontier.
I wish Kurzweil would go to work on my Siri. Those commercials with Zooey Deschanel and Sam Jackson make it seem so easy, and apparently they’ve been a hit with the all important 18-34 demographic. But about all that I can get my iPhone to do with voice commands is to help me call people whose names are in my Address Book.
One can debate whether Best Buy picked the best examples, or whether my “research” is too superficial to rely on. But it’s hard to argue with a focus on innovation. And any ad that features Ray Kurzweil is all right with me.