Dean Kamen to Tech Community: "We're Not Creating Enough Innovators"

The famed inventor says technologists need to work harder to attract more kids to engineering

3 min read
Dean Kamen to Tech Community: "We're Not Creating Enough Innovators"

Dean Kamen, the celebrated inventor and entrepreneur and tireless advocate for science and technology, had a clear message for his audience at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin last week: The tech community needs to work harder to attract more young people to careers in technology and engineering. “We’re not creating enough innovators,” he said.

It’s a message that Kamen has been repeating for years, and, it appears, with an increasing sense of urgency. The world’s problems, he said, are getting bigger and harder, and if we don’t engage the next generations to come up with solutions, things are going to “spiral in the wrong direction.” “As professionals, parents, citizens, the tech community has to reach out and be available to kids,” Kamen said, “to show it’s cool” to work in science and technology.

Kamen’s keynote was part of the IEEE Technology For Humanity series at SXSW Interactive. The series also featured talks by Dr. Leslie Saxon, a leading researcher in the field of “body computing”; Adam Savage, cohost of the Discovery Channel’s show MythBusters; and James Williamson, a Sony Electronics executive, Senior IEEE Member, and guitarist of legendary band Iggy and the Stooges.

Ray Almgren, a vice president at National Instruments, the Austin-based maker of engineering and instrumentation tools, introduced Kamen at SXSW, saying he’s responsible for numerous innovations (drug delivery systems, the portable dialysis machine, the Segway), but that “his most impactful invention was founding FIRST.”

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is the popular high school robotics competition that Kamen created 25 years ago, and which he modeled after sports events. Every year, teams have to build robots to participate in matches that require them to both collaborate with and compete against other teams. Students learn about engineering principles, leadership, and teamwork. It all culminates with a mega event, the FIRST Championship, which this year takes place at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo., 24 to 26 April.

Local FIRST teams showed off their robots at SXSW in Austin.

In his talk, Kamen also gave an overview of recent projects he and his engineers at DEKA Research have been working on. One of them involves more upgrades to the advanced prosthetic arm DEKA created for DARPA, known as the “Luke Arm” (after Luke Skywalker’s bionic limb). He said dozens of soldiers will be able to test the latest version.

The other projects Kamen mentioned were a water purifying machine and a power generator based on a Stirling engine. DEKA is conducting trials with the water system, called the Slingshot, in schools and communities in Africa and Latin America. The company's Stirling-based system is a rugged electricity generator that can run on a number of fuels. Kamen said two units have been deployed in a village in Bangladesh, where cow dung is used to power them.

But what Kamen really likes to talk about, he said, is FIRST. He described how FIRST went from an experiment, with 20 teams participating in the first competition in 1992, to a global phenomenon that today involves 29,000 schools in 81 countries, 120,000 volunteers who act as mentors for the teams, and 200 corporate sponsors. To date, more than a million kids have participated in FIRST events.

Kamen also shared an interesting bit of news for those already involved in the competition: He’s asked musician Will.i.am, who's been helping Kamen promote FIRST since 2011, to write an “exciting new song,” which may be unveiled at the FIRST Championship in St. Louis next month.

But despite his excitement, Kamen also expressed frustration. He said the tech community deserves an "A+" for improving people’s lives, but in terms of engaging kids, he would give it a "D." He urged SXSW attendees to get involved in FIRST and similar initiatives, as well as promote extracurricular school programs that focus on science and technology. He noted that even a small number of people can have a big impact and that waiting for the government or others to solve the problem is not an option. "That leaves it to us," Kamen said.

“Every kid deserves to see what the world of innovation and tech can do for them, and what they can do for the world.”

Photos: IEEE Spectrum

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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