Remarks on Accepting the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund on November 29, 2001

December 3, 2001 by Ray Kurzweil

Raymond Kurzweil was honored with the Tree of Life Award on November 29, 2001. Here are his remarks on accepting this prestigious award.

Speech delivered on November 29, 2001. Published on December 3, 2001. See related news item on

Thank you very much for this wonderful honor.

In my mind,

the Jewish National Fund is a very special organization.

As far as I know,

they’ve planted more trees

than any other organization in the world.

And in the desert no less.

So that’s one reason I’m delighted to be here this evening.

I’ve always wanted to get a gardening award.

I can’t say that I’ve ever planted a tree,

but I did plant several dozen flowers this past Summer.

So I can honestly say

that I owe this award to my wife, Sonya,

who’s been my mentor in my reluctant gardening career.

But seriously,

planting all those trees in the desert

has always been a symbol for me

that anything is possible

when we put our minds to a task,

even peace and understanding.

And I do owe a great deal to my wife Sonya

for being a mentor

on what’s valuable in life.

You know, it’s the old story

of a guy who’s wandering around trying to plant ideas,

and selling them to investors

and so forth,

and his wife keeps him connected

to the really important things,

like children and, well,


At the same time,

Sonya’s been planting some important ideas of her own

in the area of child development.

Sonya, why don’t you stand up.

And speaking of children,

Amy, why don’t you also stand up.

She’s not really a child anymore,

but she’s been teaching me some important lessons as well,

like for example,

how does a virtual female rock star talk and move.

And while I’m recognizing people,

I’d like to thank my partner Aaron,

whom I met 36 years and nine companies ago.

It seems just yesterday that I borrowed your suit, Aaron

because mine had ripped on the train,

to make that pitch to Johnson & Johnson

to fund our first company.

So I’d like to thank you for lending me the suit,

(did I ever thank you for it?)

even though it didn’t fit very well,

and for a great variety of other forms of support over the decades,

intellectual, entrepreneurial, and moral.

Aaron, I think the next nine companies will be easier.

Let’s hope so.

I’d also like to thank Don Gonson

who has been involved as a sage and insightful legal counsel and business advisor

to all of those companies.

And there are many of you here tonight

who have also worked closely with me over the years.

Inventing is very much a group process.

As Aaron said,

It’s really not a matter of a crazy inventor

who disappears into his or her basement

emerging years later with a breakthrough.

Usually I steal Aaron’s thunder, which I guess is why

he wanted to speak first.

But you left out the punch line.

Actually, it’s a group of crazy inventors

who disappear into their basement.

And we have worked in some basements over the years,

although recently the offices have been a little nicer.

But I’d like to thank all of my colleagues here this evening

who have contributed in a myriad of ways.

And I’d also like to thank all of you this evening

for your support of this worthwhile cause.

The Jewish National Fund asked me

what I’d like to do with the money

that we’ve raised this evening.

I think we decided

that Israel has enough trees for the moment,

and that a more important issue today is water.

We have to water all those trees for one thing.

And water is a critical issue today in the Middle East.

I was chatting about water two days ago with Ed Roberts,

who’s been a mentor to Aaron and many others over the years,

and who’s here this evening.

Ed described a plane flight he took flying over Egypt,

and being impressed at the lush green countryside he saw below,

when suddenly it turned into white desert.

That’s where the water ended.

In the arid lands of the Middle East,

water is the vital resource underlying all of the agriculture

and much of the economy.

New technologies being pioneered in Israel

will enable the relatively plentiful salt water in the region

to be turned into usable water for drinking and agriculture.

So I’m hopeful our contribution this evening

will make a difference to all of the economies of this critical region of the world.

Water is also an important ingredient

in our mutual goal of peaceful coexistence.

Despite all of the tension in that region of the world,

you might be interested to know

that Israel and Egypt have been peacefully cooperating

in sharing their mutual water resources.

The same is true of Israel and Jordan.

And even Israel and Syria

have peacefully worked out their water arrangements.

So peaceful cooperation is quite possible

when the will to work together is there.

The key resource that we need

to build a peaceful and prosperous world

is tolerance of each other’s differences.

The two great wars of the last sixty years —

the second World War,

and the Cold war,

were fought against intolerance,

against intolerant totalitarian and extremist regimes

of the right and left

representing fundamentalist secular ideologies.

We’re now engaged in another war

with another fundamentalist movement,

this time religiously based,

but no less intolerant

than the ones we vanquished in the last century.

I grew up with a religious education

that emphasized tolerance,

and the idea that there are many paths to the truth.

The only thing we were taught to be intolerant of

was intolerance itself,

which sounds a little like Roosevelt’s maxim about fear.

The idea was that the true essence of reality

is so profound

that our view and expression of it

can necessarily only express

a small aspect of the world’s grandeur.

Thus seemingly incompatible ideas

may nonetheless all be accurate reflections

of the same eternal truths.

The ability to reconcile

the apparent contradictions

of different philosophies and religious traditions

is the ultimate transcendence

reflected in what are essentially ineffable realities.

So as a child

I was keenly interested in all of the major religions

because I felt they all could shed some light

on why we are here

and what we’re supposed to be doing.

The essence of the recent assault on our nation

was an attack on the very idea of tolerance,

on the notion that there is more than one way to live our lives.

It was also an attack on modernity,

on all of the changes that have taken place in human history,

at least since the seventh century.

And I don’t believe it will be the last such struggle

With the accelerating pace of change —

and those of you who have heard me speak before

know that I can’t speak for more than three minutes

without mentioning the word accelerating —

we will see other confrontations,

some violent,

on the idea of modernity.

Indeed, there are valid,

and increasingly compelling, issues

of how to reconcile the exponentially increasing power of our technology

with the panoply of human needs,

and human values,

if only we could reach a consensus

on what those values are.

We won’t settle all these issues this evening,

but contributing to the basic resource of water in the Middle East

is a good place to start.

Thank you once again

for joining me this evening,

for your support,