LEGO; illustration, Bill Szilagyi
Inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen

How Dean Kamen Will Keep Changing the World

July 11, 2016
Dean Kamen has invented the Segway, the iBot wheelchair and hundreds of other life-changing tools. But more than four decades into his career, his lasting legacy could well be helping turn hundreds of thousands of kids toward technology.

ORLANDO — For years, Dean Kamen has been the closest thing the engineering and technologically entrepreneurial world has had to a rock star. Or, if not a rock star, then at least the kind of indie favorite who has hauled in a handful of Grammy Awards and should have long ago landed a record deal from a major label.

During his decades of tinkering, Kamen has been credited with the invention of the Segway and the iBot Wheelchair, along with 400 or so other domestic and foreign patents. He has received the Hoover Medal for American engineering, the Heinz Award for technology, the economy and employment, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Bill Clinton for advancing medical care, the prestigious (and financially lucrative) Lemelson-MIT Prize, the ASME Medal form the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and, for good measure, the Global Humanitarian Award from the Tech Museum of Innovation. Heck, he has been accomplishing so much for so long that he was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame more than a decade ago.

To hear Kamen tell his own story, though — and he is surprisingly humble and self-deprecating — nothing has given him greater satisfaction than working with MIT professor emeritus Woodie Flowers more than a quarter of a century ago to establish FIRST, short for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. The non-profit organization has inspired an estimated 1 million students to dive into all sorts of tech projects, most famously robotics, more recently LEGO. Today, the member list includes more than 400,000 students, more than 130,000 volunteer mentors and close to 40,000 robots.

Kamen delivered the keynote address at Rockwell Automation TechEd last month in Orlando, an hour packed with ideas, stories and inspiration. What follows is some of what Kamen has learned.

FIRST is in its 26th year, we’ve had 55% compound annual growth, and it’s really nice that the word that keeps coming up on top every year is “inspire” first, not “education.” Kids will get good in anything that adults make them think is important. That’s why we have no shortage of entertainers and ball-bouncers. But they will not improve our quality of life, and the world needs to start making heroes out of the right people. I think the sports model works beautifully. Why don’t we use it? LeBron James is not a phys ed teacher. When I started FIRST, all I said was, Let’s find superstars from the world of tech. We can make a real difference with what happens in this world.

We started with 25 teams. This year, we had almost 46,000 teams in 86 countries, and we keep growing. 

Ten, or 15, or 20 years from today, some kid in our stands will have cured Alzheimer’s, or AIDS, or cancer, or built an engine that doesn’t pollute. Look at these kids. They’re the future, and there’s a job out there for every one of these kids.

We can complain about the lack of kids studying science and engineering — we can complain about a lot of things — but that’s not what engineers do. We don’t complain. When we have problems, we solve them. You’ve got to have a voice. We’ve made it easy, we’ve organized it, and with so many great companies, I think we really can create a global network that will, for the first time in history, allow a generation to grow up and communicate, cooperate, and understand each other. 

You can give them a vision of the future, and you can give them the tools to turn that vision into reality. When kids have a vision, and they have tools, and they have hope, they don’t do what people did yesterday. The world is desperately crying for people to help fix it. It’s time for the technical community to answer that call.

Six years ago, the U.S. still had one credible source of news — Stephen Colbert. Five times, I was on his show, and each time, he told me, Bring your arm, bring your wheelchair, and I’d say, Sure, Stephen, I have nothing better to do than come to New York and have you make a jackass out of me. I’ll go anywhere if we can promote FIRST. If you help me promote FIRST, sure.

I don’t go anywhere unless we can promote FIRST. I did ask the president, Please, bring the kids to the White House. I’ve asked four presidents — two Democrats, two Republicans, nice balance — in the 26 years FIRST has been around, Please, don’t help us. The last thing I want to do is turn FIRST into another curriculum-based, in-school science fair. It makes it seem intimidating and difficult. Please, let us make FIRST an exciting alternative to the Super Bowl and the World Series. Every year, the president brings the winners of the Super Bowl and the World Series to the White House. In America, you get what you celebrate — in any free country, you get what you celebrate — and let’s celebrate science and technology. The kids deserve the same recognition for their excellence in technology as the people who are excellent at bouncing a ball, or singing. The difference is the kids in FIRST have improved our quality of life, and will continue to improve our quality of life.

By the way, for any of you who have any doubt, if you chase the President of the United States around the White House with a 120-pound robot, the Secret Service has no sense of humor.

I Don't Start a Project Anymore Unless People Think We're Nuts

Moore’s Law, we all know, is moving faster and faster and faster and faster. But if anything, our society and regulation are slowing down as people, organizations, institutions, countries get older and more reserved, more conservative. And it concerns me that the technical community keeps putting all these great things out there, but the rate at which they’re getting adopted is slowing down, and it’s in large part because the technological community doesn’t have a place at the table. ... We ought to help society decide what are reasonable risks, what are reasonable benefits. If you leave it to politicians, I’m not sure they decide that very well.

Technology is an incredible amplifier of what can be done in this world. We need way more technical people. ... We can create, in every generation, an elevated standard of living.

I don’t start a project anymore unless people think we’re nuts.

The No. 1 cause of death among kids under 5 years old worldwide could be completely eliminated if we just gave people clean water. We’ve known that for years. We realized that all the normal methods of getting clean water to people require pretty big infrastructure. People think we get to play with technology because we’re rich, and that’s not the case. We’re rich because we have technology. We don’t spend hours a day looking for clean water — and when it’s not clean, spending our time burying our babies. You have to rethink the situation. You can’t deliver to the developing world a simple solution to make clean water.

If all the places around the world that don’t have clean water had access to the supply chain of chemicals and filters and activated charcoal and osmosis, they’d probably have clean water. We had to come up with a robust solution that doesn’t matter what’s in the water, that doesn’t need filters, that’s just a box that has two hoses on it and has instructions to take the big, fat hose and stick it in anything that looks wet.

We were asked by DARPA to help put (arms) back onto some of these soldiers that have literally given their arms to this country and the security of the world. ... The goal was to build a device that weighs no more than the original equipment — nine pounds — and that can allow people who have lost their arms to do simple things that we all take for granted. In the Civil War, when a musket took out their arm, we gave you a wooden stick with a hook on it. One-hundred fifty years have gone by and now IEDs are doing this, and we give these young soldiers a plastic stick with a hook on it.

Losing an arm is pretty bad. I can’t imagine that. But compared to losing two? I have my day job, and I have FIRST, but I’m at home, laying awake at night, thinking about these people who gave up two arms, and I’m thinking, How do you roll around in bed with no arms? (DARPA) gave us a couple years, and I told them, In one year, I can build an arm that could do all. It would take longer to integrate it, but these young people have suffered enough. ... We agreed to disagree. We compromised, and did it my way.

That arm is critically important to a very, very, very, very, very small group of people, and I hope we keep it a very small group of people.

At the intersection of 3D printing and biotechnology, we are turning science-fiction into science at a rate that is just staggering. Over the next decade, you’re going to see medicine change in ways that just makes the whole dot-com era look calm.

Technology at the most fundamental level, if it’s properly integrated by people that get it, can change the world and can save lives.

About the Author

Matt LaWell | Staff Writer

Staff writer Matt LaWell explores news in manufacturing technology, covering the trends and developments in automation, robotics, digital tools and emerging technologies. He also reports on the best practices of the most successful high tech companies, including computer, electronics, and industrial machinery and equipment manufacturers.

Matt joined IndustryWeek in 2015 after six years at newspapers and magazines in West Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, a season on the road with his wife writing about America and minor league baseball, and three years running a small business. He received his bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from Ohio University.

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