Dean Kamen is absolutely incredible. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is absolutely amazing. He has a casual style (he rambles and mumbles) but he connects everything together and has an incredible command of facts. He feels life is really short and getting shorter, so he’s got no time to waste on silly things. The technologists build incredible tools but use them for obscene purposes, like animated gory deaths with incredible realism.

He wants to focus on the big things: water, transportation, health care, communication, energy, education. And he’s doing it. His team is building tools that are going to make real changes, as he explains in some detail. People thought that all the hype behind the Segway was a bust, but there’s a ton of amazing stuff if you look a little deeper. Here’s what he said.


Most sophisticated robot going into production, but the user interface should be as simple as sneakers. With a computer, the worse is that you reboot. But with the Segway, the worst is that you ruin your face. So we had to detect failure, alert (by shaking) and continue operating. When people get on the Segway, they smile. Why? They’re watching themselves learn to walk again.

3.2 billion people live in cities. The twenty largest burn 43% of the world’s fuel and create 80% of the pollution. Years ago, we had the horse and carriage. It went eight miles an hour. Then we invented the car, which went twenty miles an hour. It changed the world. But now we sit in cabs at an average speed of eight miles an hour. Everyone’s said “I could walk faster than this!”, but you can’t. But what if you could walk 2-3 times faster?

Look at the future, everyone’s moving into cities. If we have to give all of them a car, it’s just not sustainable. This is the transportation “last mile problem”. How do we convince people? People hate change; they’d rather live with 44,000 dying from car accidents every year. Sadly, to convince the powers that be, we have to make them into golf carts. Then people can see what it feels like.

Power and Water

It runs on batteries. Best batteries get 70w/kg. Not enough. Fuel cells aren’t going to happen this decade. Chocolate cookie is 1000w/kg; propane is 8750w/kg. Need to find some way to use hydrocarbon fuel. Can’t use a traditional engine; too noisy.

We’ll build a Sterling. They’ll burn any fuel (corn husks, dung, kerosene, charcoal), they’ll run for forty years, they’re hermetically sealed, they’re silent. Reverse of a refrigerator compressor which takes energy in, makes one end cool the other end hot. With Sterlings you make one end hot the other cold and you get energy out. Conventional wisdom says it’s impossible; GM, Philips, NASA all failed.

Looked at all the reasons people failed and worked around them. Make them small: big volume (since it’s the cube) but smaller surface area (since it’s the square). No one else wanted to make tiny engines or have a trickle charge. Failed for years but finally made it work. Got 20% efficiency (your lawn mower gets 6%) so what to do with the rest? We have to control the rest anyway so use it to distill water. The biggest problem in the developing world, keep 80,000 people from dying.

It’s no surprise the same people who need electricity need water. So instead of plugging it into your home, you can plug your home into it. Give 4 billion people transportation, communication, electricity and water. One problem: these people have no money. Need a really good invention so we can solve this positively. They need to be a resource, not a consumer. Look what happens when everyone knows exactly what they don’t have and can’t get.


Government: we’re here to buy your votes, here are more schools and more computers. The problem is not on the supply side; we’re 17th in the world in education, we have way more than most of the other 16. Everyone in technology is on the supply side. More computers isn’t going to help them if they don’t graduate high school.

We need to create demand and show kids what’s real and important. Instead, they suffer from obscene distractions: rock star, basketball player. Their only other choice is flipping burgers and selling dope. Most of the country is women and minorities, but their sum makes up less than 11% of all technical jobs.

Average kid doesn’t know a scientist or an engineer. Don’t believe any are women or minorities or have fun. We need to convince these minorities to participate. The rock stars and sports players aren’t going to do it. All you technologists get an A+ for doing great things but a D- for being socially responsible. So we need the Olympic Committee of Smarts. FIRST. Kids doing things with real adults that do things that are important. Kids have the advantage, since it’s not what we don’t know that limits us, it’s what we know that isn’t so. Have to show the kids that it’s every bit as fun as shooting hoops but there are a few more jobs available.

It took off. This year we had 17 cities hold regional events. Big cities. We are creating demand. But we’re missing mentors that understand technology and can show kids that science isn’t middle-aged men in lab coats. We need your support. You’re all busy. If you’re not busy, I don’t want you. But you need to participate.

Your technology isn’t going to do what you think it will. Answering machines were supposed to make sure we can talk to everyone, but now we use them to screen calls. Cell phones were supposed to connect us to everyone, but instead they separate us from the people in the same room. We won’t solve the digital divide with more technology.

The most important thing we can invent is inventors. If we keep having more people with less resources the world is going to be an ugly place.

posted November 07, 2002 10:30 PM (Superheroes) #


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