"My first thought was, 'What the heck does he want?'" said Kurzweil, who created the first reading machine for blind people. In short order, the peripatetic inventor learned he was $500,000 richer, the recipient of the Lemelson-MIT prize.
The prize, which will be presented to Kurzweil on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., recognizes his 35-year track record inventing technologies in areas as diverse as pattern recognition, artificial intelligence and speech reading.
"It's great to be recognized where there aren't a lot of real rewards for inventing," said Kurzweil. "It's particularly gratifying to be recognized by peers."
Beginning in 1976, when Kurzweil created a reading machine to give voice to any written text--a system first used by songwriter Stevie Wonder--the inventor had already founded and sold four companies.
Kurzweil has authored a couple of books about the future of technology, charting out his views on the blurring distinction between human and machine and an emerging era where scientists will be able to routinely send microscopic "nanobots"--cell-sized robots--into our bloodstreams to repair damage.
More recently, he has concentrated on work in the field of virtual reality.
Some of Kurzweil's predictions have triggered controversy. He and Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, have been involved in a yearlong debate about the use and abuse of technology and its potential impact on civilization. In a piece he wrote a year ago, Joy outlined what he saw as the danger posed by technologies such as robotics and genetic engineering.
Still, in an earlier interview, Kurzweil struck an optimistic chord about the future, saying prescriptive vigilance by responsible practitioners is the best safeguard.
Kurzweil plans to donate a portion of the prize money to a foundation he has set up for blind students. The rest will go toward his research.
Reflecting on the importance of the prize, Kurzweil said he hoped to be remembered for making contributions to the field of pattern recognition.
"There has been a lot of attention to artificial intelligence over the decades but not that much to pattern recognition, which in my opinion, is the real key to human intelligence," he said.
"What's gratifying is making that leap from dry formulas to making transformations in people's lives," he added. "If I get a letter from a blind student who credits our machine with getting his information, that's a very exciting thing."
The Lemelson prize is named after Jerome Lemelson, a former toy industry executive and inventor famous for filing patent infringement lawsuits against a wide variety of defendants. Velcro darts, medical equipment, VCRs, cassette tape decks, fax machines, Hot Wheels tracks, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, industrial robotics and wiper blades were but some of the inventions Lemelson claimed infringed his 500 plus patents.
Few cases went to trial, but lawsuit settlements totaled in the millions of dollars, according to legal experts.