Related to MAKE 04, Dean Kamen: The Dean of Engineering
More from Dean Kamen
by William Lidwell
October 13, 2005
In MAKE 04, William Lidwell interviewed übermaker, technology visionary, and science evangelist Dean Kamen. The interview question and answers presented here did not appear in the magazine because of space limitations.
You have been likened to a modern-day Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. What inspires you to create?
Life is really, really short. There was an infinite past before I was here--some would argue it was 20 billion years or so, but I am not so sure. Suffice it to say that there was a very long time before I was here, and there will be a very long time after I am gone. My life looks like a tiny dot on that continuum. This perspective gives me a sense of urgency. With that sense of urgency, I get up every day and think that I do not want to waste any time. And if you don't want to waste time, you look at all the problems you can work on and say, "I only want to work on the big problems. I am only going to work on the ones that matter." If you are not working on important things, you are wasting time.
I'm getting that you are rather passionate about using time efficiently.
Wasting time just makes me nuts. As I walk through shopping malls, it never fails to amaze me that there is store after store filled with packages of stuff. I think about the time and energy spent designing all that. Making the graphics. Putting on that plastic wrap. Distributing it to this place. And here it is, in this expensive real estate. I look at it and think, what is the total number of man-hours spent on design, development, manufacturing, and marketing just to put that inane piece of junk in a store window. And then I think if all of the people who put all of their energy putting that stuff in there were working on making water drinkable, or making power available, or curing diseases, or making the air breathable--it just astounds me how much junk is out there! If somebody were to ask me if I worked on some of the things I see in stores, I would be embarrassed to say that I traded any of my precious time on this planet to produce many of those things. There is just so much stuff in the world that, to me, is devoid any real substance, value, and content that I just try to make sure that I am working on things that matter. Sometimes it is hard to separate out things that matter from things that don't because the world is a complicated place, but I always try. It is pretty easy to see that if you can make an iBOT that will give a veteran who has lost his legs the ability to stand up and get around, that's a good thing. If you can make a generator to help people get electricity, that's a good thing. And, if you can make a water purifier to help people have drinkable water, that's a good thing. It is not always clear cut, but I try.
When did you realize that you wanted to be an inventor and entrepreneur?
This is a hard question. It is hard because it is impossible for anyone to recount the myriad of events, some small and some large, that somehow combined to get them where they are today. People want the distilled, straight-line-between-point-A-and-point-B answers like they get in history books, but reality is never like that. In truth, the process is a spaghetti bowl of chaos in which people take the longest possible paths, digress to numerous dead ends, and make all kinds of mistakes. Then historians come along and write summaries of this messy, nonlinear process and make it appear like a simple, straight line between two points. I could make something up for you along these lines, but in reality, I could never have predicted--not at age 5, 10, 15, or 20--that this was what I wanted to do, that this is what I was going to do. They say, "People make plans and God laughs." That is true.
With that as my disclaimer, I can tell you some broad themes that I think brought me to where I am today. At a very young age, my hobby became thinking and finding connections. I found that there was very little in school that helped me understand the world around me. I thought I was just dumb. As I got older, I started realizing that I wasn't so dumb; rather, most people simply didn't know the answers to the questions that I was interested in--or they didn't care. Then, as I started to get to the age where everybody started thinking about getting a job, I started thinking that I really didn't want to work for anybody. I liked thinking and problem solving, and that is what I wanted to do. I realized I needed to develop a tool set that allowed me to work on the kinds of things that I wanted to work on. And, assuming that I could solve problems that people wanted solved, I ought to be able to make money doing that, which should ensure my freedom and independence.
I decided that I would work really hard at learning the basics of engineering, physics, and math, and I would apply those tools to the two things that mattered to me: understanding the world around me and solving important problems. So, I spent five of the best years of my life as a college freshman getting a top-notch education in areas that mattered to me and working with great faculty. When I had to make the decision between continuing on to get a diploma versus leaving and continuing my education, I couldn't compromise in any way--I left school. I never thought about getting a job before or after. I never thought about working for somebody. I never worried about what "success" was--I will let history determine that. That general philosophy brought me to where I am today. I never woke up and said, "I want to be an inventor," or "I want to start a company." I never planned any of those things.
You dropped out of college to pursue a more "hands-on" education. So, too, did Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, among many other creative luminaries. Is there a pattern here? Does public education and higher education actually stifle creativity and innovation?
I think that most of the people who succeed in some extraordinary way, and most of the people who fail in some extraordinary way, tend to be people who did really well or really poorly in school. I think that school systems are really good at telling people how to do "okay" in the world. That is what their curriculum is about. That is what their institutional capability is about. That is what the people who run them are about. This is not to say that there isn't a world full of hugely talented teachers working hard every day to make a difference and change kids' lives. It is simply to say that the bureaucracy of the educational system limits the ability of educators to address the fringes. So if somebody was a good "B" student in school, you can be pretty sure that he or she is a good, average person. If a person gets A pluses in everything, or F minuses in everything, you can be pretty sure that he or she is an unusual person. Unusual people wrap around the ends of the bell curve. The system does not deal well with them. And I am not sure that the A+ person and the F- person are particularly different. It does not surprise me that when you look at people later in life, the people who got A pluses and F minuses end up doing substantially differently than the average people who are doing well in a system designed to accommodate the center of the bell curve.
Is this what led you to create FIRST?
Yes, in part. I wanted kids to think about how they are going to spend their time and their energy--to think about doing something worthwhile and important with their lives. FIRST was designed to show kids that being creative and solving problems and using the tools of engineering, math, and science are every bit as fun, rewarding, and accessible as playing sports or being on stage. I wanted to show them that, given a big pile of stuff and a problem, there is no one right answer to that problem (though that is what they're often taught in school). If there are a thousand different teams at a FIRST competition, then there are a thousand different answers to the problem. None of them are the "right" answer. None of them are the "wrong" answer. They are all different answers, and each has strengths and weaknesses. When FIRST teams compete with each other, as in sports, they each are subject to luck and uncertainty. The students can see that science and engineering are not a closed, boring set of already defined solutions that you either have to memorize or accept--they are creative, unpredictable, and exciting. No matter how much energy people put into FIRST, they always come out with more than when they started. After seeing all the crummy news and negative prognostications and gloom and doom about the future, you go into a room full of kids of all different social and ethnic backgrounds and you look at what they are doing and how they are doing it, and it just gives you hope.
Emerson said, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Has that been your experience?
I don't think that is true at all. If it were, the world would not spend so much of its time and energy on marketing, selling, and distributing mousetraps versus engineering them. I think in the end, eventually, a better mousetrap will become part of the infrastructure, but it won't be because people beat a path to the door of the inventor. People are reluctant to change, and they will happily live with the devil they know rather than learn something new or change what they do. So, when a better mousetrap comes along, it takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of logistics, before it ends up being implemented. So it usually happens years or generations after the invention was first conceived and created. I think there is a huge gap between when a new invention becomes possible and when it becomes part of the way we live and work.
On that note, one of your current projects is using a small Stirling engine to produce electricity and purify water. Engineers have long been mesmerized by the Stirling's theoretical efficiency, but frustrated by their failure to realize that efficiency while managing issues of size, control, and cost. What are DEKA's plans for the Stirling?
I have had a life-long fascination with Stirling engines and with thermodynamics generally. But as you say, the Stirling has been fascinating scientists and engineers for well over 100 years, yet it has never been a competitive solution to most problems versus other kinds of heat engines out there, like steam engines, internal combustion engines, and gas turbines. Stirling engines are big relative to their energy density, expensive, hard to manufacture, etc. In short, they cannot compete with the power generators that are already a part of the infrastructure in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. However, there are a lot of places in the developing world that are waiting, and will continue to wait, for a top-down approach to provide power. But there is no infrastructure in place, and it will probably take 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, or longer before centralized power and electricity will be available in these places--if it ever happens--for reasons that have nothing to do with engineering or technology. The obstacles are social, financial, and political, but they are not technological. Our goal is to use a bottom-up approach to instantly get people on to the ladder of technology, beginning with getting them electricity in their homes and villages. This enables them to take care of their basic needs, attain a better quality of life, and start creating wealth. We defined the problem: they need a generator that runs on any fuel, is very reliable and essentially maintenance free, is able to generate sufficient power for a small village, and is small enough so that a couple of people can carry it around. If we had an engine that could do all that, it would be a big deal. We realized that in developing world environments, the Stirling, despite a number of problems that had to be solved with it, could really be the core of a bottom-up way to build distributed point-of-use power generation throughout the world. It was as much an insight into the practical realities of the situation as it was about the second law of thermodynamics.
At the Segway convention, there were a number of "tricked out" Segways. And, as I am sure you are aware, many robotics engineers are modifying Segways to be used as self-balancing robot platforms. Are there any plans to sell Segway kits, or perhaps dynamic stability platform kits?
I think that solving the inverted pendulum problem--creating a system that is stabilized because of feedback and control--is becoming a pretty straightforward laboratory experiment in many colleges and even high schools. The sensors, accelerometers, and gyros are getting better and cheaper and easier to integrate. So, whether we make a kit, or whether the people who make these components make a kit, kits with the necessary components to build small balancing machines will happen soon.
What generally comes first, the solution or the problem? That is, do you typically start with a solution and then try to find a problem, or start with a problem and then try to find a solution?
The answer is "yes." We are surrounded by important problems that need solving. For example, we live in a world that continues to sink into this "have and have not" dilemma. The environment is under assault in a variety of ways. More than a billion people are without access to electricity or drinkable water. You mix your judgment and experience and imagination with awareness of these types of problems, and you get a kind of serendipitous soup from which problems are matched to solutions. This does not occur in a linear way, where you say, "aha, here is the problem...aha, here is the solution." You start with a vague understanding of a problem and a vague understanding of a technology. You think about it, talk about it, try some things, build a prototype or two, and get smarter. Occasionally, things coalesce into a match. If the match turns out to be a prince and a princess, the world is a better place.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." What do you think?
I think the three stages are accurate, but they are followed by a really daunting fourth stage: by the time that everyone finally gets around to believing something to be obviously true, it will likely be discovered that it is false. Most people do not understand this. They hold on dearly to those things they now accept and think they know to be true, which is one reason that progress is so slow in the world. It's not what experienced people don't know that prevents them from moving forward, it is what they do know that just isn't so anymore. People think that once you have the truth then you've got it; it's there, and it doesn't change. That is nonsense. Some truths do change more slowly than others. For example, there may be an upheaval in the truths of physics every few hundred years or so, whereas societal or technological truths change on a daily basis. But if history is any indication, all truths will eventually turn out to be false. Perhaps even this one.
What advice do you have for aspiring Makers?
Work on the big problems--the problems that matter. Most of the time you will fail, but you will also occasionally succeed. Those occasional successes make all the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile. And when you fail, you at least have the consolation of failing on really hard, important problems, which is far more appealing than running the risk of failing on easy, unimportant problems.
Complete the following statements:
The most important thing in life is: Make sure you focus on doing the right things.
The person(s) who influenced me most are: My parents.
My favorite book is: The Feynman Lectures on Physics.
I am most proud of: I hope it hasn't happened yet.
Nothing annoys me more than: Wasting time.
My favorite activity is: Thinking.
I wish I were better at: Thinking.
If I could go back in time and do one thing differently, it would be: I don't waste time thinking this way.
The one thing I wish I had more of is: Time.
I would like my epitaph to read: He left the world a better place than he found it. He gave more than he took out--and he took out a lot.
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Really excellent article. I've been turning into a Stirling engine nut myself lately, and my question is -- are you looking at thermoacoustic engines at all? It seems like they would help with some problems in your target application areas, like manufacturability and maintainability (but maybe they exacerbate others, like energy density?).
Posted by gwstoll on November 22, 2005 at 08:49:03 Pacific Time
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Excellent Article. Thanks Dean. Are you hiring?
Posted by variabledesign on October 26, 2005 at 12:30:43 Pacific Time
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Dean informs me that DEKA is always on the lookout for exceptional talent. If you are interested, contact DEKA at email@example.com. Reference the Make interview. Good luck!
Posted by william.lidwell on October 27, 2005 at 14:17:59 Pacific Time
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I would like to reach Dean Kamen regarding an idea I have. I believe this could revolutionalize home cleaning and provide a much sanitary environment for allergy sufferers.
Please contact me at 603-889-1570.
Posted by turtle112258 on September 20, 2007 at 06:10:33 Pacific Time
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