An Inventive Author

At M.I.T., Ray Kurzweil acquired the nickname the Phantom because he tended to skip class to work on his inventions. His disappearing act paid off. Earlier this year President Clinton presented the native New Yorker, 52, with the National Medal of Technology--a sort of cyber-Nobel Prize. Kurzweil's eclectic career and propensity for combining science with practical--often humanitarian--applications have inspired comparisons with Thomas Edison.

The comparison isn't that farfetched. By age 16, Kurzweil had built his first computer and sold software to IBM. His first major breakthrough, the Kurzweil Reading Machine, allowed blind people to read any document by simply feeding pages...

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