Kenneth Jernigan’s Prophetic Vision:: Address to National Federation of the Blind Convention Banquet

July 9, 2002

Published on July 9, 2002.

Twenty-seven years ago, I had the honor of meeting Dr. Jernigan, and other leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. Back then, Jim Gashel headed up the Washington office and displayed the same passion and strategic brilliance then that he would demonstrate in this crucial position for the next quarter century. Marc Maurer was then a young student, but was already demonstrating his commitment and leadership capacities as the NFB’s student leader.

I had the privilege of working intimately with the NFB’s engineers and scientists, under the leadership of Michael Hingson, to create a print-to-speech reading machine. The lessons of that experience have animated my career since that time, the most important of which is the following. If you want to create a new technology, then the people to turn to, the people who have the motivation and the knowledge to do the job right, are the intended users themselves.

I’ve remained involved with reading machine technology for the last 27 years, most recently with Kurzweil Educational Systems, and have remained close to the NFB, both of which have been deeply rewarding experiences. The NFB succeeds for two reasons: the endless reservoir of dedication of its members, and the genius of its leadership.

Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was a leader in the tradition of Moses and Martin Luther King. And like both of these men, he would be unable to personally experience the promised land toward which he had so skillfully led his people. In his last year of life, Dr. Jernigan articulated a vision that he knew he would never get to see: the world’s first world-class research and training institute for the blind. It was a prophetic vision, and in a moment I’ll share with you why I believe that to be the case.

Unlike many other leaders, Dr. Jernigan knew he was a mortal man and prepared for new leadership long before there was any reason to believe there was any impending reason to do so. He nurtured Marc Maurer’s leadership skills, and as is evident at this convention, was as successful in this endeavor as in everything else he did. When Dr. Jernigan passed from the scene, the vision of the research and training institute was just that: a vision, and a daunting challenge that many doubted would ever come to fruition. It is a fitting testament to Dr. Jernigan’s lifetime of leadership, and a reflection of the dedication of the NFB’s membership and the continuation of inspired leadership in the person of Dr. Maurer, that this institute now rises like a sphinx in the outskirts of Baltimore.

Let me share with you why I think Dr. Jernigan’s vision came at a propitious time. Technology has always been important, but we are now standing on the precipice of an inflection point in human history. Technology is reaching what I call the knee of the curve, a point in time in which its inherently exponential growth is taking off at a nearly vertical slope. I’ve studied technology trends for several decades and developed mathematical models of its progression. The most important insight that I’ve gained from this study is that the pace of progress is itself accelerating. While people are quick to agree with this assessment, few observers have truly internalized the profound implications of this acceleration. It means that the past is not a reliable guide to the future. We’re doubling what I call the paradigm shift rate every decade. So the twentieth century was not 100 years of progress at today’s rate of progress because we’ve been accelerating up to this point. The last 100 years was akin to 20 years of progress at today’s rate of progress. And we’ll make another 20 years of progress at today’s rate of progress, equal to all of the twentieth century, in the next fourteen years. And then we’ll do it again in another seven years. Because of the power of exponential growth, the twenty-first century will be like 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress, which is a thousand times more change than what we witnessed in the twentieth century.

The other insight I’ve had is that technology is a mixed blessing. It brings both promise and peril. If we could magically go back 200 years ago and describe the dangers of today’s world to the people back then — as just one example enough nuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on Earth — they would think it crazy to take such risks. On the other hand, how many of us today would want to go back to the world of two hundred years ago? Before you raise your hands, consider this. If it wasn’t for the progress of the past two centuries, most of us here tonight wouldn’t be here tonight. Average life expectancy in the year 1800 was only 37 years. And most people on Earth lived lives filled with poverty, hard labor, disease, and disaster, not to mention the ignorance and prejudice that was rampant with regard to the capabilities of the blind.

So, we’ve come a long way through both promise and peril. And few of us would want to go back. As Dr. Maurer has said many times, we’ll never go back, certainly not to the lack of opportunity that was the rule for blind people a half century ago.

We also see the promise and peril of technology in its impact on the blind. The digitization of information has brought many opportunities as blind people have led the world in rates of computer literacy. Reading machines, screen readers, voice-based news services such as the NFB’s News Line, and Braille translators, printers, and note takers have all provided greater opportunity. But the downside of technology has also been evident. With the great profusion of electronic displays, access for the blind is often an afterthought if it is thought of at all. The moment text-based screen readers were perfected, the graphic user interface was introduced. It then took at least a decade for Windows-based screen readers to become workable, at which time a new set of challenges emerged from a profusion of new web-based protocols such as Flash and Java that are once again creating barriers.

This intertwined promise and peril is going to accelerate. At the end of this first decade of this new century, everyone will be on-line all the time with very high speed, wireless communication woven into their clothing. Will this represent a great enabler for blind students and workers? Or will it represent a new set of obstructions? To assure the former, we’ll need new technology breakthroughs, public accessibility standards, and a panoply of programs for training and availability. This is why Dr. Jernigan’s initiative was prophetic.

Scientists are beginning to perfect new ways of communicating directly with the human body and brain. There are already four major conferences devoted to a field called bioMEMS: biological micro-electronic mechanical systems that are beginning to noninvasively place intelligent devices inside the human blood stream and brain. Within a couple of decades, we will have established new high bandwidth pathways of communication directly to and from our brains. Will these radical new technologies be a good thing for blind people? Well, I suspect that the National Federation of the Blind will have something to say about how these developments are deployed and to assuring that they bring promise rather than peril for the blind.

It looks like we will have the NFB’s National Research and Training Institute for the Blind just in the nick of time. Despite his illness, Dr. Jernigan realized he did not have a moment to lose in articulating his vision. And this is why I believe that Dr. Jernigan’s foresight was a prophecy.

Copyright (C) July 2002 by Ray Kurzweil.