The 2009 Creativity 50: Dean Kamen

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While the Segway has yet to earn mass acceptance and revolutionize urban transit, Dean Kamen—quite possibly the most influential public figure in American engineering and one of the more outspoken champions of technology in our society— continues to push his firm, DEKA Research, to innovate and develop products that bring advanced technology into peoples' everyday lives. DEKA has tackled transportation with the Segway, all-terrain wheelchair IBOT and the DEKA Revolt electric car, but two of Kamen's more recent inventions have also captured imaginations—one for helping the disabled lead normal lives and the other for its capacity to reduce disease. First created at the behest of the Defense Department for maimed combat veterans, the Luke arm is a robotic prosthesis intended to allow unparalleled range of motion, responsiveness and haptic feedback for the wearer—true touch sensations. Kamen's group has since passed their findings in the Revolutionizing Prosthetics project to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which is looking for ways to perfect nervous system controls for the prostheses. The Slingshot, Kamen's other recent world-wower, is a compression distillation device designed to filter any sort of liquid, no matter how contaminated. It's powered by an ultra-efficient Stirling engine that can burn nearly any fuel and generate residual current to run lights or other electric devices. Kamen says once his company refines the Slingshot into an acceptably cost-effective and efficient product, it'll have to begin the cycle all over again and design a method for distribution that echoes the sustainability values the device was built for.

On top of all this, Kamen's 20-year-old high school robotics competition, FIRST, continues to flourish, helping students recognize the value of technical thinking and teamwork.

Creativity: At the recent FIRST kickoff you talked about "developing people capable of creating solutions to the world's problems"—what are the basic traits you think FIRST is most adept at fostering?

Dean Kamen: Funny that you say that, because I guess whenever I'm trying to ask people to devote significant resources, time, effort, mentors, the passion that it takes FIRST to work, you have to give it to them, in your world, the marketing world, the 'What's the value proposition?' line. If they're going to commit to this, then what's the win? FIRST is trying to create among kids, we say, and again maybe it's tongue and cheek, that they're not really building robots, they're building self confidence. They're building relationships with serious adults. They're building an awareness that the world has problems that you need tools like analytic skills, the laws of nature, he rules of engineering are powerful tools to then use to attack these problems and solve them. What we're really trying to do is not have these kids learn to build a robot or solve a particular problem with any particular engineering discipline; what we're trying to do is convince kids at an early age that they can play basketball hour after hour, week after week in that golden decade from seven to 17, and they'll get a little bit better at it. But not much better. Your physical size, it's not going to make you seven feet tall, there are still only going to be a few dozen spots every year in the NBA. But if they spend hours a week, not even hours a day, with the same passion that they spend trying to develop the muscles hanging off their arms and legs trying to develop the muscle hanging in between their ears they'll have developed a capacity to appreciate how to really understand complex problems and how to go about solving them, and they'll have the self confidence and hopefully the relationships with serious adults to go about creating career opportunities to become innovative people that in their own enlightened self interest, their own career options, and in our overall society's self interest is critical right now. The world is in a race between catastrophe and education. All you have to do is look at the newspaper and you start to think catastrophe is winning. Is it the bird flu that's going to wipe us out? Terrorism. The polar caps are melting. We're running out of oil. We're running out of energy. We're running out of water. The environmental problems are exponentially increasing. How are we going to deal with this? And the answer is we're going to create a self confident generation. It's going to take millions and millions of smart people all working together to divide all of these problems up into tractable issues that we can then resolve. And most of the kids in this country, this wealthy country that has the technology and has the resources to be inspiring these kids to do this, is also the rich country that can afford these kids endless mindless distractions in which their role models and their heroes can all come from the world of entertainment and the world of sports to the exclusion of them ever having to deal with really difficult issues. And I look at the world and say the four billion of the six billion people, the two-thirds of the world that's living on two bucks a day, are not the ones with the education, tools and resources to solve our global problems. They've got bigger issues every day, like trying to figure out how to prevent their kids from dying of starvation or thirst or disease. So I look at it and say there is a tiny percentage of the worlds kids that are lucky enough to be in an environment where education is accessible and where resources are available. Along with all the privileges that gives them, to have their pastimes, and all the national pastimes and distractions around in a moderate way, the same kids should feel responsible enough to become the people that are inevitably going to have to solve the world's problems in the next couple days, or we're all going to be spiraling into a place nobody wants to go.

CR: It's interesting because you'll see an eleven year old can upload videos to YouTube and operate a complex digital camera menu and get acquainted with that technology pretty well; those values, like updating your Facebook page, aren't the same sort of values FIRST seeks.

DK: That's right; in fact, what you just said is so critically important. We have a culture that confuses familiarity with technology. Comfort with technology with mastery of it. Every grandmother I know is so proud of her little grandchildren that they can turn on a computer and use YouTube; you know what? The fact that they have now mastered the ability to sit, hour after hour, in front of a mindless swirl of animated violence developing better eye-hand coordination to make the exciting sounds and thrilling pictures pop up and down, that, to me, is not an achievement worth bragging about. Tell me your great-grandchild designed a video game, I'm impressed. Tell me that they're making a game whose content is to help other kids learn, or explain global phenomena, or to give them an appreciation of that, that's great. But show me that now at the age of six years old someone can turn on, fully operate and be engrossed in Grand Theft Auto, then that, to me, is not a reason to think we are in good shape in terms of technology.

CR: How do you think the culture of innovation has changed in your lifetime?

DK: I think the digital divide that affects everything else has affected innovation as well, creating a bigger and bigger disparity between those that are really capable and those that are drifting further and further behind because they haven't mastered the concepts. They don't understand the tools. And it's creating the same situation you'd have if you had a small group of people that were literate at one time in this world, could read and understand documents, and a group of people who could not read or write. The analogy between being literate because you can read or write, separating you from the ones that can't, is now an, I think, more amplified set of issues when you start to realize that there are so few people in the world that are capable of reading, writing, thinking and understanding the issues and the power of technology and how to use it wisely and how to assert it in dealing with the right problems. There are a lot of people that are on the periphery of technology, and the great debate these days is typically what can be done with these technologies as opposed to what should be done with these technologies. We need more people that have a really fundamental understanding of science and technology helping create the policies, the products, the implementation that will create a better, more sustainable future for the world.

CR: To what extent to you ponder how people adopt what you make? It seems to be that there's a conflict between changes in peoples' mindsets; there are emotional changes, and then there are rational judgments and checkboxes. Both need to get processed in order to make widespread adoption happen. A difference between what people know in their hearts is right and what people calculate as right based on rational factors.

DK: You can go very, very deep into that. What do you believe because you just have to take some things on faith, and what do you know because you could derive it analytically and prove it? What do you know versus what do you believe is getting harder for people to deal with. Look at the global mess. We pre-program kids at a very early age. We put an operating system in them. Some are Mac and some are Windows, that's like saying some are Muslim and some are Christian and some are Jews. By the time they're five or six years old you've baked into them an operating system. They don't know the difference between what to know and what to believe, what to think and understand versus what to just believe. Once you have kids that have an operating system baked into them that's radically different than the kid who grew up ten miles away with a different system they don't know how to trust each other, they have different beliefs, so what they can know to be true, derive to be true, becomes a second order of fact. I don't know how to solve that problem. But I think technology is way more universal, way more accessible. And [they] should be accessible to all kids at a young enough age so they all learn the same truths and facts. Newton's laws, F=MA, what electricity is; those things are laws of nature, they pervade the universe. If your village believes in one bit of history or one amount of folklore or one method of showing your respect or support for your particular heritage that's fine, but if what all kids could learn at a young age were universally acceptable, consistent, real truths, the world would be way more likely to move in a productive, positive way, and then they could all have their own beliefs, and deal with some of their own local customs in a way that they could tolerate each other. But, it's in fact, in the 21st century, we continue to work from the other direction, which is every group teaches their own kids fundamental, quote, truths, fundamental beliefs. It's going to be very hard to have them share a world where rational thinking and technology can be implemented and distributed in a way that leaves everybody as part of the same team.

CR: What's the status of the Slingshot project?

DK: It's moving along. A day doesn't go by that we're not trying to make it a little smaller, a little simpler, a little cheaper, a little more robust. We intend to put them in places in the world where high reliability and low cost are absolutely essential. The design requirements of that product are enormously difficult; typically you design a product and, if it's a very high-end product, we always want something to be cost effective. But with that surgical knife, that cost, within reason, doesn't matter too much. But with that disposable plastic silverware, exactly how sharp it is or how long it lasts as an heirloom doesn't matter that much. In building something like the Slingshot, when we look at the design space we're in, it's got to be very rugged, it's go to be very reliable, it's got to be a lot of very difficult things to be. Oh, and it's got to be very cost effective! It's got to be very simple to use! It's got to have very sophisticated systems inside! It's got to be able to be used by people with very little education! So it's a very interesting design problem, because it just has too many orthogonal axes on which it has to be great.

CR: To what extent do you have to approach a design problem like that from multiple angles, including the angle of implementation in a business way?

DK: You just hit a critical one there. Once the Slingshot is really done, completely done and ready for prime time, there'll be another entire design cycle that needs to happen, and it is going to be the design of the business, financial, distribution model that allows this kind of technology to get to the few billion people in a scalable, sustainable way. And the model of Oh, they'll just go to their local Wal-Mart to buy it won't work. There is no model right now. There are pieces of models right now, microfinance from the ground up, like the Grameenphone and the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus' stuff. I think we're going to have to have as interesting a design cycle in terms of how to roll this thing out in a successful, sustainable way as we did in the design cycle in creating small, point-of-use water generation systems. We tried a couple of those processes because the sustainability of the model will depend in some ways on the design of the hardware and vice versa, but they're both huge problems—or, I'll say, huge opportunities.

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