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Dean Kamen’s Young, Robot-Building Army

Spark interviews the legendary Segway inventor at his youth robotics competition about creating a better world through invention.

May 10, 2013

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When asked to name the invention he’s most proud of, Dean Kamen, the tech visionary who invented the Segway (and contributed to Qualcomm Spark) answered: “I don’t know. It didn’t happen yet.” Not because he hasn’t been on the forefront of invention, but rather because he feels that looking forward is the key to the success of the entrepreneur or inventor.

Hoping to spread that entrepreneurial spirit, Kamen’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization, brings together the brightest young minds in science and technology to compete at the regional level on the way to its robotics championship in St. Louis. Billed as “The ultimate celebration of science and technology,” young people are challenged to design and build a robot in Kamen’s real-world engineering experiment. At the event this year, we sat down with Kamen to talk invention, inspiration and all things robotics.

QUALCOMM SPARK: You’ve said that your favorite invention is FIRST. Why?

KAMEN: As a kid, the first time you’re told, “You get one wish, but only one wish. What’ll you do?” [Kids say], “I wish for 10 more wishes.” They’re very proud of developing their first algorithm. I think FIRST is the personification of that.

QUALCOMM SPARK: What would be the ultimate invention?

KAMEN: To invent inventors. Invent a way to scale the process of invention. And every kid, on every team in the FIRST competition, is basically being given the skill sets, the motivation, and I think the passion, to become a problem-solver and an innovator.

We’re creating an army of FIRST innovators. They come away from these experiences with knowledge, with training, with education—with passion. They also come away with a totally different perspective about their future, about the possibilities.

QUALCOMM SPARK: The young people we’ve spoken to talk a lot about the friendships they’ve gained and the support they have for each other. How is that a key principle at FIRST?

KAMEN: It’s called “gracious professionalism.” And we not only promote gracious professionalism in everything we say…we not only promote “coopera-tition” on the field, and off the field, but we literally build it into the games, in the way the rules are constructed, in the way the game is operated. It rarely turns out to be advantageous to waste your time trying to destroy something. You’re always better off trying to build.

But there’s a very big difference between a system where the public gets the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants as the bar keeps going up, and a world where we’re each fighting with each other, and racing to the bottom together. FIRST is about making sure we’re all climbing to the top with each other. And do it competitively, because competition brings out the best in all of us.

QUALCOMM SPARK: In one of this week’s ceremonies, you talked about your vision of a world where people are reasonable, and pointed to FIRST as being a way to help ensure that future.

KAMEN: Well, all you have to do is read the news. If kids are exposed long enough to a world where the news is, these people, physically or in some other way, attacking these people, sooner or later you end up where the norm in the world is an adversarial relationship between all the players, and every time somebody wins, it’s because somebody else is losing.

And when you come to FIRST, and you realize everybody is winning, and everybody is building together, and everybody is sharing more of a bigger, more exciting world inside FIRST, you wonder why can’t we spread that to the world outside FIRST? And wouldn’t it be great if there were 7 billion people on this planet all contributing, all making us collectively better and smarter and richer, instead of all fighting over finite resources? I’d rather look at the world of FIRST than the world typically projected in the news.

QUALCOMM SPARK: We’ve heard you describe the mobile phone as being at the top of the technology food chain. How important is mobile to your thinking about the future?

KAMEN: I think it’s become clear to virtually everyone, that connecting the world, in a positive way, creating a network that’s efficient and effective, is key to avoiding cultures clashing, to avoid the inefficiencies that are making the haves and have-nots more separated.

And the answer is, you make connectology. You make access to what’s going on efficient and effective. And you put all the people that need to know what’s going on in a place where they can communicate and cooperate. And wireless communication is an enormously effective way to lower all the barriers—to allow for really true, global collaboration.

Michael Copeland

Sr. Manager, Marketing

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