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Shaping the future: Google and Ray Kurzweil join forces

Google, like many top technology companies, is always taking on new employees — but in landing Ray Kurzweil, the search giant hasn't just added a run-of-the-mill desk jockey.

A brilliant technologist who also happens to be one of the world's most renowned futurists, Kurzweil announced on his blog that he'll be joining Google from today as a director of engineering. The 64-year-old author and inventor said he will focus on machine learning and language processing projects in his new role.

"I've been interested in technology, and machine learning in particular, for a long time," Kurzweil wrote.

"When I was 14, I designed software that wrote original music, and later went on to invent the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, among other inventions. I've always worked to create practical systems that will make a difference in people's lives, which is what excites me as an inventor," he added.

In the 1970s and 80s, Kurzweil's work encompassed software development, scanning technologies, text-to-speech synthesization, and digital music. In more recent years, he's earned even greater fame as an author of books exploring the outer limits of technological and medical possibilities.

Kurzweil is probably most well known for his prediction of a machine intelligence "singularity" in the not so distant future, a pivotal moment when computers match the complexity of the human brain, achieve self-awareness, and usher in an age of increasing technological advances occurring at an exponentially increasing pace.

Last year, he noted the importance of the occasion of the Jeopardy quiz show victory by IBM's Watson supercomputer, highlighting the advance towards artificial intelligence it represented from an earlier IBM machine's defeat of chess grand master Garry Kasparov in 1997:

Before that, Kurzweil co-founded Singularity University, an exclusive learning centre targeting top technology executives, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Its focus areas include space travel, artificial intelligence, environmental sustainability, and other areas of particular interest to Kurzweil, including life extension through technologies like nanotechnology.

Some of Kurzweil's most far-reaching ideas are regarded with scepticism in many quarters. For example, he has posited that humans may begin downloading themselves onto machines to achieve "immortality" in just a few decades. He has also predicted that machine intelligences will invent faster-than-light space travel and colonise the Milky Way galaxy, or perhaps even the entire Universe itself, within just a few generations of the Singularity — itself a concept that has many detractors. Most recently, Kurzweil spoke of "expanding our brains into the cloud."

One thing's for sure — the futurist and the search giant appear to be a pretty good fit for each other. Google has grown far beyond its famous web-scouring algorithm in recent years, pouring people and resources into projects exploring space, augmented reality, robotics, and more.

For his part, Kurzweil sounds like he's going to be a kid in a candy shop at his new job:

"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," he wrote on his blog.

"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."