Segway inventor wants young minds to get in the game

was in town last week to raise support for a national robotics competition for students. SUZANNE PLUNKETT / AP, File
was in town last week to raise support for a national robotics competition for students. SUZANNE PLUNKETT / AP, File (Segway inventor Dean Kamen)
Posted: April 09, 2012

Perhaps best known for the two-wheeled vehicle called the Segway, Dean Kamen has also invented the wearable insulin pump, a home dialysis machine, a high-tech prosthetic arm, and a wheelchair that can climb stairs.

He was in Philadelphia last week to foster support for FIRST, the national robotics competition for elementary and high school students, which has a regional contest Thursday through Saturdayat Temple University's Liacouras Center. The finals are later this month in St. Louis.

Kamen spoke to The Inquirer about creating more FIRST teams in partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and about his broader vision for innovation.

Question: Why is the partnership needed?

Dean Kamen: The reason kids play football is they see the Super Bowl. It gets them excited. The reason they play baseball is they saw the World Series. . . .

Somehow every town's got a place to go play Little League. But every town doesn't have a place to do what we do.

We've made it cool and fun and not nerdy, but we've got to tie on to the infrastructure that exists in all these communities, so that they can deliver our programs.

Q: The FIRST competitions motivate kids to pursue careers in science and engineering, with each team under the guidance of a company sponsor. But would these kids go into those fields anyway?

Kamen: I said to the companies . . . you've got to bring some proof with you . . . that you've had the biggest impact on the most kids.

Now, if you adopt a local school where all the kids of all your senior executives by the time they're 12 are deciding between law school and medical school, it's going to be pretty hard to convince us that you had much impact on kids, because all you did was give more advantage to the advantaged.

So the companies went out and found schools that have high dropout rates. They found schools where kids have never met a real scientist or engineer.

Q: Some argue we don't need more scientists and engineers, because we graduate many more people in those fields than there are jobs.

Kamen: The idea that, well, we must have reached the limit of technical achievement, no more inventions need to be done, the world's reached its pinnacle . . . it's absurd on its face to believe that we don't need more engineers.

And by the way, if you create a great technical person, you know what they do? They create an industry that doesn't exist today. . . . There'll be 100,000 jobs in some industry in 10 years that hasn't been defined yet.

Q: You want FIRST to help spread the word that science is cool. Are we making progress?

Kamen: Most Americans don't even realize that we've lost our edge in so many places and we're playing catch-up. . . . And now both sides, whatever your political appetite is, say we're going to go out and create jobs. It ain't about jobs.

I mean, that's setting your sights pretty damn low, to think you aspire to one day be able to have a job. You know, I don't think Wilbur and Orville [Wright] set out and said, "We need a job." They wanted to take people and cheat gravity.

Why aren't we saying to kids that it isn't about a job? You can get a job: 'Would you like fries with that?' Life is about creating careers. It's creating new opportunities, it's creating a world that's way better than the world that you came into.

Q: You've developed a device that produces clean water easily in developing countries, called Slingshot, which runs on just a kilowatt of electricity.

Kamen: We built a miniature vapor compression distiller that can take any source of water - a latrine, a chemical-waste site, saltwater from the ocean - it can take any source of water, no matter how badly contaminated . . . and out of this little box comes water that's so pure it meets the U.S. pharmacopia standard for water for injection.

And inside the box, there's no filters, there's no membranes, there are no chemicals, no charcoal, there's nothing you've got to go down to the local Wal-Mart and replace, because most of the people in the world . . . that don't have clean water, also don't have a Wal-Mart they can go to.

Q: You've said that the next generation of wealth will come in genomics, among other fields. But some have questioned whether personalized medicine will amount to much.

Kamen: I think the next thing that will have a more profound impact on health than vaccines did is the fact that soon you'll be able to do your own genome for 100 bucks, and once you have it you will personally be able to accurately predict what you ought to be worried about, and then you'll be able to optimize individual therapies, what drugs will and won't work. . . . All of that is going to happen within the next 10 years for the people that can afford it.

Contact Tom Avril

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