As the founder of FIRST Robotics, Deka Research, and ARMI (to name a few), Segway creator Dean Kamen holds over 1,000 patents and an invaluable perspective on how inventions scale. This week, the prolific inventor opens up about his path to creation, what schools get wrong about STEM education, and why he thinks competition is key to getting kids to study science.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hey everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving tech and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy here with my co-host, roboticist Bryan Salesky. Hey Bryan.

Bryan Salesky

Good to be here, Alex. 

Alex Roy

I am so excited about today because when I was younger, 20 years to be specific, and three startups ago, I’m with my business partner in our office, he runs into the room to tell me someone has announced a product that’s going to change transportation forever. He’s absolutely convinced it’s going to be literally a teleportation device, but only for inanimate objects, because he had just read the Stephen King short story, “The Jaunt,” which is all about such a device. Allegedly, Steve Jobs had seen this device and it’s going to change the world. But if you take a look at the sidewalks in almost any major city today, it’s very obvious that invention did change the world, but it wasn’t a teleporter.

It was the Segway and it was 20 years ahead of its time. So the man behind the Segway is Dean Kamen, but the Segway is just one of his many inventions. And like many great inventors, Kamen has always been a man ahead of his time. But unlike many of the others, he’s not focused on his own glory. His focus is the betterment of mankind. So Dean Kamen is the founder of Deka Research, FIRST Robotics and the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute also known as ARMI. So here to talk about FIRST Robotics, the difference between invention and innovation, and to discuss his current projects and hopefully some of his future ones, Dean Kamen, welcome to No Parking.

Dean Kamen

Thank you for that very, very, very overly kind introduction. If you saw the world from inside my head, looking out, it doesn’t look nearly as glamorous as you just described to be an inventor, but thank you.

Alex Roy

You’re welcome. You know, Bryan and I have been talking a lot about the way technology is portrayed in the media as this often unbroken line of successes with no failures or divergence at all, and how difficult it is to explain the reality of innovation to people who think that the slightest detour or delay is a sign of disaster. And we were talking about the history of elevators, which is an almost hilariously literal metaphor for how invention happens. Do you have an example of a major problem or failure in one of your research paths that really got you down?

Dean Kamen

Yeah. You don’t have enough time for those. I would say the fair question is among the near infinite number of failures, you go through every day, every week, every month, every year, can you identify those rare events where something actually finally got through all the hurdles, that invention actually worked and it got accepted by society and, therefore, became an innovation that we all see. Those are so rare. The ones that I’ve been involved with you already know. Things like iBOTs, things like FIRST but they are a very, very small subset of all the crazy things I’m trying to do all the time. And you just have to get used to the fact that almost everything you try to do, at the very least, will take a lot longer than you thought, and sadly in many cases will never become what you hoped it would be. That’s just part of the deal of being an inventor.

Alex Roy

So let’s go back to the beginning. I know you grew up on Long Island. Your father was an illustrator for a bunch of things I read as a kid, including Mad Magazine. How did you get started in science, and in invention, as opposed to say becoming an illustrator?

Dean Kamen

Everybody’s heard that statement, “necessity is the mother of invention.” In my case, it was, “mother is the necessity of invention.” It’s because I had an older brother as I was growing up, who’s a truly brilliant guy. As a student, he always found it easy. He could read blindingly fast. He knew how to respond to the optimization of what they expect on a test. He could regurgitate back to teachers exactly what they want to know and without being a nerd. I mean, the proof is he became an MD PhD Professor of Medicine at Yale at a very young age. And his specialty was Pediatric Oncology, treating babies with cancer. You can’t be a better son to a Jewish mother than the doctor, doctor, doctor, right? And there I am following in his footsteps. I never learned how to read fast. I have dyslexia.

Dean Kamen

I could not regurgitate the teachers what they want to know. Cause I was more interested in understanding the fundamental issue. What did Newton mean in Newton’s laws? I don’t really care which one is number one, which one is number two and regurgitating back by that sequence. I did not do very well. So by the time I got into junior high school, I was pretty sure I was never going to get a job anywhere. I don’t like people telling me what to do. I didn’t like teachers telling me what to do. And I figured, and I was told school is where life is supposed to be easy and fun and I was having a terrible time. And I imagine what about when I grow up, it’s not a teacher, it’s a boss. What am I going to do? If I’m failing in school, I won’t be able to do well on a job.

And I saw my father. Self-employed, he’d get up every morning, he’d go to his easel and he’d do what he loved to do. And I talked to him about this and he said, “Dean, don’t worry. Just find something you love to do, get good enough at it that people will want it. And you can make a living doing it. I do art that way.” Well, based on what my father said, and he wasn’t a guy that typically gave a lot of advice, I started looking around at problems people have and said, what if I can solve those problems? And it doesn’t matter whether I got an A or a B or a C, I won’t need to please anybody with that. I won’t have a job. I’ll just make stuff. And I’ll let history answer the question of whether I added value or not. And if I don’t add value, I guess I shouldn’t be able to do well in life.

If I could add value, none of those other arbitrary metrics are going to matter. So in junior high school, I started a little business and it was the early years of triax and everybody knows about diodes, two-junction devices and transistors, three-junction devices. Well, when I was that age, General Electric was starting to put out these triax, these four-junction devices that can handle massive power. In fact, I personally believe whether you like it or not, we should blame the whole tech industry, semiconductor in particular, for the age of discos, because you can, instead of running a little transistor on your speakers, you could make the whole room light up to the beat of the music, and people wanted that stuff. So I went down to the local RadioShack and started buying these little devices, putting them into boxes, building little amplifiers for them and selling them to local kids.

And as I got better and better at playing with triax, I ended up building big systems for it. And by the time I was in high school, I was working on one that ended up running all the lighting systems in the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Hayden Planetarium. And I was making some pretty good money making this stuff. I took all the money I made by doing that and started building medical equipment, cause by then my brother was in medical school and he needed ways to deliver precision amounts of drugs to neonates, to two or three pound preemie babies, and there isn’t equipment for that. So I just kept looking at one problem after another, trying to figure out what currently available new technology might be able to bring a better solution to an old problem than was available before.

And I didn’t have to do the basic research. I didn’t invent semiconductors or transistors. I didn’t invent most of the stuff that took big organizations and deep research. I just tried to be a systems integrator that would take new existing technologies that were typically applied to big markets or consumer stuff and say, how can I apply these technologies to deal with problems that might be way more important and way more focused on a smaller group of people that’s not going to see a benefit unless somebody goes after it. Hence, I spent most of the rest of my life building various kinds of medical equipment.

Bryan Salesky

That’s a really impressive start, Dean. I didn’t know about the Natural History Museum piece.

Dean Kamen

Either way, the reason I say, “mother was the necessity of invention,” as I started doing that while in school, I did even less well in school because I was distracted by doing this business. Then I went off to college, but in college I just started doing more and more of asking my professors to help me, not in the academic pursuit, according to their curriculum, but the things I needed to know. I spent a lot of time in the physics department or the math department, not going to classes, but learning what I need to know to make my next thing happen. Until finally, it was clear I was never going to get a degree. I had to go home and tell my mom, remember the mom whose first son is the doctor doctor doctor that, “Hey, I’m not getting any degrees yet.” And she didn’t really want that. She didn’t talk to me for a little while. And I said, “don’t worry, I’m going to do these other things.” But I realized after seeing how down she was about this, that these inventions better work because “mother was the necessity of invention” by then, and to get back in the good graces of mom and dad, after dropping out of school, I better be a success.

Bryan Salesky

What got you the gene that made failure okay? Because I mean, so many kids are taught like, well you gotta pass this test. You have to succeed at this. And you know, you got to watch out for your future. What made it so that failure was okay and you just were so resilient and just bounce back and keep going?

Dean Kamen

So I’m certainly, I’m no psychologist or psychiatrist. And this is wild speculation on my part, but I think about that a lot. And I started realizing it may not be a coincidence that as you start as an adult, I see them interviewing more and more adults, and I won’t mention some by name, but they’re pretty famous at this point. There’s a lot of very, very successful people that will tell you they have dyslexia or they couldn’t learn to read at an early age, including myself. And I started thinking, this can’t be, like almost all things that happen at a statistically significant level, it’s not a coincidence. There’s some cause and effect there. And I have a feeling, and again, I have no expertise whatsoever, but I said, I failed so often at a young age because I couldn’t go into school and quickly do well on it. I started thinking, you know what, maybe at a young age, if you start failing early, you learn how to deal with it better. And once I started realizing, yeah, I made fail at knowing how to get the right answer on their test, but if I go and think hard and study and look maybe more deeply at the things I didn’t understand, those few things that I fixated on, I would end up having a deeper understanding of then the kids that were getting A’s on the tests.

Alex Roy

Could you talk to us about the difference between invention and innovation? Because it reminds me of my attempt to be a screenwriter. And my dad said, “nice job kid, but you never sold a script.”

Dean Kamen

I think an invention, almost by definition if you go to the United States Patent Office, they’re very clear about it. An invention is something new and different that’s not obvious. You know, I can say, “Oh, I took that chair and I painted one of the legs green.” That doesn’t make that an invention because there’s nothing non-obvious about adding… But if you connect different things or ideas in a way that has never been done before, that might have value in use, it’s unique in various thresholds, it’s an invention. Now I think most people have very sloppily confused invention and innovation. They’ve even sloppily confused inventor and entrepreneur, like they’re all the same. They are very, very, very different things. The proof of that is just last year, The U.S. Patent Office made a big deal about issuing the 10 million patent. Well, I’m old, but I’m not that old. And my first patent was 3,858,581 on a drug delivery system. So they were at about 4 million when I got my first patent. Now they are at 10 million. There haven’t been 6 million innovations in my lifetime. You know, I mean innovation, you know, fire, you know, the wheel, movable type, the TV clicker. The difference between an invention and an innovation is the fact that in general, people, governments, businesses, families, cultures are very, very, very reluctant to change. And that’s with good reason. Biology has said, “Hey, if it’s dark over there, you don’t know what’s on the other side of that Hill. It’s nighttime. Don’t go there.” So as a basic human behavior, we are risk averse. Since you’re risk averse, you may know the devil you know, and you’re not very happy with this solution to a problem, but at least, you know what it is. And asking somebody to give up something that they’re familiar with, they’re comfortable with, they understand, even though it’s not optimum, is very hard. To make an invention transcend the human reluctance to change: a) it has to be such a compelling improvement over what you’re doing that you’re willing to do this very difficult thing called accept change. You have to learn a new thing and accept risk. The other thing is, in order to get that invention to become an innovation, it not only has to be compelling. You have to be able to have people understand the value and understand that, while there may be some risk, it’s minimal risk. And that’s hard to do, and people will live a long time with suboptimal systems before they accept change.

Alex Roy

All right. So you’ve said that the invention you’re proudest of is FIRST Robotics, but I guess FIRST Robotics really is an innovation in education. Can you explain how FIRST Robotics started, what it is and how it started?

Dean Kamen

So first of all, thank you. You’re the first one that’s ever posed a question about FIRST by asserting it’s an innovation?

Alex Roy

Well, it clearly is because I took classes as a kid in coding and other things, but like, I didn’t go down that path. I play with Capsela and Lego Technic, but I never, my greatest disappointment is that I’m not an engineer like both of you. Tell us about FIRST.

Dean Kamen

Around the time I started FIRST, it was already clear to serious business leaders, serious government leaders, the economists of the world were saying America was by far the largest economy. But by then, and I’m going back now decades, it was clear we were not producing enough scientists and engineers to meet the needs of what they knew industry would be looking for. They also knew that growth in economies and standard of living, inequality were all dependent, as they had been for centuries, on the people that had the best mastery of science and technology. You need that for everything from healthcare to defense. But they all jumped to the conclusion: we have an education crisis. It was called the education crisis. To many people, it’s still called an education crisis. And that offended me because my mom’s a teacher. Every one of you knows a great teacher that helped change your life.

And I kept looking at that situation saying, okay, they’ve misdiagnosed the problem. I said, we don’t have an education crisis. We have a culture crisis. It’s not what we don’t have enough of – great teachers, great schools – we spent back then, and today even more so, more per capita per kid in this country than any country in the world on education. So what’s wrong? I said, I know what’s wrong. It’s not what we don’t have enough of. It’s what we have too much of. What we have too much of is distractions. Even within the school, not only was our culture obsessed back then with only two kinds of role models, the world of sports in the world of entertainment. And particularly for women and minorities, I said to my mom and to my dad back then, you know, they’re going to blame this whole issue – no scientists, no engineers – on the education system.

You know what? If it’s a culture problem, and what we’ve got to do if kids will excel at that which we celebrate, all we’ve got to do is figure out how to get kids, particularly women and minorities, that our culture makes them think, Oh, math and science, it’s not for you. It’s difficult. It’s boring. It’s not fun. We’re competing for the hearts and minds of these kids. We got to make them celebrate the right thing. And in America, we know how you get people to celebrate something, you make superstars. And the media industry was very good at making superstars out of two kinds of people: people in the world of sports and people in the world of entertainment. So I said, all we got to do make math and physics and engineering a sport, and we gotta make it entertaining. So I said, let’s take exactly the model that already exists, that’s known to work. We don’t have to invent that. We’ll just put the content in, which is instead of learning eye-hand coordination or how to run or jump or kick or throw, we’ll learn how to develop that muscle hanging between their ears. But every other aspect of what makes sports work, we’ll do. So I said, if I’m going to make kids really aspire to be great at science and technology and engineering in a sport, I’d better have superstars for that sport. Well, where am I going to find them? Oh, I know at NASA, at Google. Well, Google didn’t even exist back then. But the fact is, I said, there are superstars that do really cool things with tech. So I ran out, because by the time I started FIRST, I was building helicopters so I knew aerospace CEOs. I was building medical equipment, I knew the people in that industry. And I got them all and said, you’re all going to lend me a couple of your hopefully young and women and minority scientists and engineers to break the stereotype that all scientists and engineers are middle-aged white males with frizzy hair and German accents. And you are going to lend me some of these folks, and they’re going to work with kids after school, but I’m not going to ask them to be the teachers, let the teachers teach. I just want superstars that can show kids that they’re as proud of what they do, whether it’s building rockets or curing diseases, they’re as proud of what they do as the superstars of the NBA and the NFL. And if we can get kids to see superstars from the world of tech, particularly women and minorities that see some of those superstars are women and minorities. And the innovation I was shooting for was, we can change the culture of this country with an innovation that will make science, technology, and engineering accessible, rewarding, and attractive to all kids. And if we don’t, this country of ours will not sustain it.

Alex Roy

If innovation is taking invention and scaling it, how did you build the FIRST organization? Did you hire people from the sports business to build it out on a sports organizational model? Because it’s, it is unique. How did that happen?

Dean Kamen

So, first of all, it’s not my proudest moment to tell you how well and how fast we scaled FIRST, because we didn’t scale it well, and we didn’t scale it fast enough for me. And in fact, for the first few years of FIRST, it had no employees, it had no payroll. It was me, calling all the CEOs I knew from tech companies. The first year I think I got 23 companies. It’s not a lot, but it was, you know, 23 companies like IBM and General Motors. It was, it was the heavyweights of the diverse fields in tech. And my engineers and I would go to my shop over the weekend and make the kits. And it was all word of mouth. It never, in the early days, scaled. And I didn’t know how to get scale. I didn’t know how to get media attention. I don’t do marketing. I was depending on these big companies to help me get it out. And meanwhile, you know, what do they say, “success is its own worst curse” because we went from 23 teams in year one to something like 50 teams in year two, and 100 teams in year three and 200 teams in year four. And you know, now we sit here this year, we had 80,000 schools. In those first years when we were doubling each year, everybody I had asked to help me in my, sort of the informal board, which was the CEOs of these big tech companies, would come to Manchester, New Hampshire, in a high school gym year after year, first year, second year, third year, it became a tradition. In January, I gave out a new kit, a little bigger than last year’s kit. The fields got a little bigger, but after five years of doubling, they all were super excited.

I was always frustrated. Wait a minute. We proved it in year one with 20 some odd teams. Every team loved it. A hundred percent of them loved it. That means we proved it works. Scale it. That’s what you do when you go from an invention, you scale. Well, by the next year, 50… Finally by the fifth or sixth year, I got some of the big companies and said, look, we’re going to run out of the Fortune 500 giants that can take kids and put them on airplanes and fly them to Manchester, New Hampshire, which by the way, was no longer big enough to hold our championship. But I said, this would be like showing kids the world series or the super bowl and get them excited, but the only way they could ever touch a baseball or football is flying to a place it’s, it’s crazy. Once we get them excited by seeing superstars, they can do little league in every little town. It’s very efficient that way. We’ve got to take FIRST and start breaking it down. So all the mid-size and small companies around all your big organizations can participate. And on the spot, a few of those CEOs, you know, said, “All right, well, let’s see where J&J, we’re in New Jersey, our headquarters is across the street from Reutgers. I’m sure we can get them to give us the field house. We’ll use their gym. We’ll do a New Jersey regional.” And Motorola said, “We’ll do one in Chicago.” And suddenly by our sixth or seventh year, each weekend in March, I had March Madness. I had five regionals. By the next year, I had two regionals each weekend. By our 10th year, we had something like 20 regionals. This year, we had 180 regionals scheduled. And I said, now that we’ve proven that the regional models work and any city can organize itself, they can eliminate the cost of having to get on airplanes and stay in hotels. And every year, with great optimism, I’ve thought now we’re going to every school. Now we hit that point, that hockey stick, that all these entrepreneurs always love to talk about. We’re going to scale this thing so every kid in the country can participate in FIRST. And I would say that each year to my board and they would kind of roll their eyes. Like he’s still crazy. I think they thought that was a big improvement over the last year. Our companies don’t grow that fast. This is just fine. So everybody thinks FIRST is this big success because it’s scaled as much as it did. I continue to be frustrated because, once we knew it works, it’s almost immoral that we still have schools that don’t let, particularly in the inner cities, schools that have the kids that most desperately need to understand these opportunities for their future.

The fact that we will have another generation of kids growing up without access to FIRST, without something to inspire them to develop that muscle hanging between their ears. At one point a couple of years ago, when I was so frustrated talking at one of our big events, I said, you know, “We’ve got to make sure FIRST is available to every kid in the country and we’ve got to do it now.” And one of my directors comes back and says, “Dean, you’re really pushing kind of hard. And you know, some people are gonna, you know, take that the wrong way.” So that evening we had a reception and I said, “I’ve been told that I’m too aggressive about wanting FIRST in every school in the country. So I’m now going to unveil the new kinder, gentler Dean. We don’t need FIRST in every school in the country. We only need FIRST in the schools where you give a damn about the kids.”

Alex Roy

That’s such a bait. Bryan, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but is there anything more patriotic than turning robotics into a sport? Because I mean, I hate to say this. It seems to me that the skills, that leadership and teamwork are things that have network effects that you learn from sports, but the rest of it don’t scale.

Bryan Salesky

FIRST is teaching a lot more than just, you know, how to put together a robot or do something engineering-wise. It’s teaching leadership, it’s teaching how to be a team player, how to sort of think out of the box a little bit and just, you know, escape the textbook and do something with your hands. I mean, there’s so many different attributes to it that, to me, I think it’s, I think it’s incredible. And what’s funny is me coming from a robotics background, we always knew, as soon as anyone sees anything that remotely resembles a robot, it’s immediately motivating. So it’s brilliant that you would take that into your afterschool concept. And these championships are very much like a Superbowl or a World Series type of event. And you see the intensity in these kids’ eyes. They’re there to dominate. I mean, they are so in it and they’ve worked so hard and they’re so proud of their accomplishments. I remember at Argo, we had a regional team come in and just show off their wares to our employees. And our employees were just shocked at the level of mastery. And a lot of it was self-taught. I mean, these kids are talking about all sorts of constructs and architectures that I didn’t learn until I was a junior in college.

So, it’s become a hugely successful program. And I think obviously it has scaled if you’re in tens of thousands of schools, but there are also other school districts still have no clue how to get started or who have artificial impediments in their way. So we don’t have the funding, or we don’t have the teachers that know how to do it, and that sort of thing. And I think what all of them need to hear is, well, first off, this doesn’t cost a whole lot. And secondly, get out of your own way. Even if it fails, you at least got kids after school working on engineering projects.

Dean Kamen

Everything Bryan just said is absolutely right on. First of all, the cost of a team is less, for any school in any city, it’s less than half the cost of what they spend per year per student in their school budgets. It’s way less than the cost of any other team that any school can have. And again, while they don’t quite [inaudible] as much at me now as they did 30 years ago, when I said every school should have one, because I say, now doesn’t every school have football and basketball and baseball as an option? And it’s just again, people don’t accept change. They assume we need to devote all this real estate to a football field or a parquet floor in a giant gym, because they’ve always done it that way. And even though we’re more likely to be appropriate educational activity, we’re absolutely more likely to lead to career options for these kids, and we’re way less costly for a school to do, it’s because it’s new. It wasn’t part of their thinking. So it’s hard to get people to accept change. But again, as Bryan said, it’s not about the robots. Again, one of the taglines I started with over 30 years ago was, “It’s never been about robots. It’s not going to be about the robots. We are not using kids to build robots. We’re using robots to build kids.”

Bryan Salesky

As a robotics person, I always thought, well this is amazing. How, how did somebody like this create this amazing robotics program? It didn’t even come out from robotics people. It’s like, Oh no, no, no, no, that, wasn’t the point.

Dean Kamen

And again, as Bryan said, there’s so much more to it. The other thing we tell everybody is, you know, look, as I said to you, when I had that flash, that epiphany sitting with my parents, listening to everybody complain about the education crisis, thinking my mother is a pretty dedicated teacher. I said, you know what? It’s not only that afterschool, you do it as a coach and everybody loves you. And during the school day, you’re obligated by your professional requirements to be judgmental. But think of it this way, we ultimately push and justify sports by saying, well, you know, it’s important that they learn teamwork. Well, if it’s so important that they learn teamwork, why wouldn’t they do it in the classroom? You call it cheating! All I could think of was, every single thing about sports is something that makes it attractive to kids. And every value that we claim they get from sports, we penalize them when we’re in a classroom. So, to me it’s been fun, for more than 30 years, to look at why sports has become such a dominant piece of our culture and why a school has become something that has this bad name that carries over into it’s a crisis. And it’s about the teachers. And I keep saying, all you have to do is motivate kids because a little bit of passion, will solve all the rest of these problems. And if they showed up at school every day, as interested in finding the best FIRST coach as the best football coach, and they were attentive in school because they appreciated the value of the skillsets, the whole interaction with school would change. And this country might get itself back to a place where it would have heroes like Edison, or more particularly, like a Tesla or Wilbur and Orville. And, sooner or later this country is going to get back to saying, if we want to be leaders in the world, if we want to have even just basic, not just healthcare and clean water and clean air and defense, but if we want to have exciting opportunities and careers for people, we’ve got to get back to where we are the culture, we are the country that invests in taking the risks to raise the bar, to use technology, to solve critical problems. And if we don’t do that, we’re toast.

Alex Roy

All right, so I want to talk about, well, not the Segway and the iBot, but these vehicles, these devices are often defined as personal mobility devices, but they’re really autonomy devices because the original definition of autonomy is freedom of action, freedom of choice. Bryan and I talk about the language used to describe technology a lot because people often project onto machines and technology, what they want based on how we describe them. You’ve worked on these vehicles, these, I guess, autonomy devices, but it’s not apparent that you’ve actually ever tried to build an autonomous vehicle. Bryan and I live and breathe these every day. Do you have a point of view on four-wheeled, enclosed passenger vehicles that one way or the other, have you ever been in an autonomous vehicle?

Dean Kamen

I have been and I’ve thought about them and played with them for decades. And sadly, now that I see Bryan’s face there, I can probably safely tell you, I’ve been thinking about autonomy for longer than he’s been thinking.

Alex Roy

He’s a young man.

Bryan Salesky

We don’t often get, we don’t often get the old, you know, a little bit of old school on the show. And I love it. I love it. When guys like Red Whittaker, come on here and say, I’ve been doing this longer than Salesky’s been alive. It’s okay. I like it.

Dean Kamen

Well, I think that sadly Red and I are probably closer in age than I am to you. And it’s funny, I was testifying, probably more than 10 years ago, on some issue in Washington, just when people were getting really hot about some of these self-driving vehicles being out there. I think it was at the Senate Judiciary and it was on intellectual property or something. And as an aside, but remember that one of the Senators said, “Well, I know this is not the subject,” but we were taking a break. He said, “What do you think we ought to do about, you know, these people that want to license and be allowed to have self-driving vehicles out in public where people could be put at risk?” And he saw me as this tech guy, and I said, “Senator, there is going to be a crisis about cars, self-driving and otherwise, sometime in the relatively near future, in the grand scheme of things. But the pressure that you in this room are going to be put under is how can we let private individuals take a 3,000 or 4,000-pound machine made out of steel and go hurling through public space at 60 mph now, knowing that every year, so far for the last couple of decades, those people have killed 40,000 or 50,000 people, put a million and a half in hospitals. This is crazy!”

Bryan Salesky

We let teenagers do it, by the way, we let teenagers do this.

Dean Kamen

Yes, but there’s gonna come a time when the public good will genuinely be considering not allowing people, because we can’t prove that we can operate at the same level of safety, and that we can’t prove that we’re going to pay attention and not be texting. But as an example, I gave the guy back then, and I think it’s probably, again, one that I never see the public. When I started learning to fly, you had to take a test after you did everything else in your little airplane, and the FAA inspector would tell you, and as you studied for this, you were told, during this flight, you are not allowed, if your airplane has a autopilot, you’re not allowed to turn it on. Because you had to prove you could maintain altitude, maintain eddy, and you had to fly this airplane and prove that you could do it without an autopilot. If you touched the autopilot, you failed the test. Okay. Now, I’m flying a jet and on its MEL, on its minimum equipment list, you’re not just required to have an altimeter that works, two of them. You’re not just required to have airspeed, you are required to have an operating autopilot or that plane can’t leave the ground. Its airworthiness certificate requires an operating autopilot. And when you take your flight test with the FAA in these aircraft, what you’re really demonstrating to them is, you know how to use the autopilot. Well, it turns out over time, most people now accept that an airplane, especially a sophisticated airplane, has to have an autopilot. It would be crazy and irresponsible to take off without one. And that happened in my lifetime. We went from, you’re not allowed to have one, to you can’t take off without one. And that’s going to happen to cars. That’s going to happen to other forms of transportation. One of the things though that I would tell you, when you talk about the language here, that I think the industry in general has made a big mistake, is artificial intelligence. We call the things that these, these algorithms are doing based on silicon systems, artificial intelligence. And that, for a lot of non-technical people, is a scary thought. You know, whether it has overtones over religion and free thought, I don’t know why that phrase has become so much part of the debate. When we built the first steam engines, and we built a bulldozer, and a guy in a bulldozer can do a thousand times as much work as a ditch digger with a shovel, we didn’t say the bulldozer has artificial muscle. It’s not artificial muscle. It’s a bulldozer. It has nothing to do with muscle. It’s a very different system. Well, a processor is not artificial intelligence. First of all, most people don’t know what the alternative to artificial intelligence is. Nobody knows what intelligence is, and most people don’t have much of it. But calling what this thing does an artificial version of something that you’re not sure what it is anyway, both philosophically and technically, allows some people to have their minds run away with, with what people generally are scared of. And again, as we started this conversation, I pointed out that most people are much more willing to live with the devil they know, and the frustrating systems that they now have. They’re more willing to live with that, then go into the unknown to change, unless it is so compelling that that change is better than what they got. I mean, for 20 years after they started making cars, people called them horseless carriages. A car is not a horseless carriage. A car is a car. It’s a different thing. It should be understood in a different way. And if you people would stop calling it artificial intelligence and call it what it is, so that the average person would say, this is a powerful tool.

Bryan Salesky

So we take your point on that. So now we know innovation is messy, right? You’ve done a good job of explaining why that is through this whole episode. 

One thing I’d like to get your take on then is, where has there been a particularly disruptive technology where the company that’s producing it and introducing it to the market has done a particularly good job of educating the public and getting them to understand why this is good, why this is an important thing, and so on? Is there an example that we can learn from as an industry? Because we’re just at the very edges of beginning that from a self-driving field or industry perspective.

Dean Kamen

Well, I think almost every new industry had to have that point at which again, the general public saw the power of this to improve their quality of life.

Bryan Salesky

The challenge, Dean, with this industry is that it doesn’t scale and it can’t scale sort of instantly. So we can’t go from proof-of-concept to like immediately demonstrating the ‘why this is good’ and ‘why this is better.’

Dean Kamen

But I would give you a much more realistic one that I think is a much bigger issue and a much bigger, no offense, bigger opportunity for humanity than how quickly we adopt self-driving cars. A couple of years ago, I started a coalition or nonprofit, which now has more than 170 members, including 25 of the most prestigious medical schools in the United States. But the premise of this thing, which we now call ARMI, A-R-M-I, not A-R-M-Y, advanced regenerative manufacturing, every time we hear the word regenerative in this world, now it’s like artificial is followed by intelligence. Well, regenerative is followed by medicine. We need regenerative medicine in which they could show you look, these things, we figured out how to tell these cells to become beta cells. They’re making insulin, we can cure diabetes by giving people a pancreas. And in this medical school, look, I get electrical conductivity out of this Petri dish. I have been able to grow these cells and they can be neurons. We could reconnect a broken spinal column and eliminate somebody’s inability to walk. Oh, in this medical school, look, these things are nephrons. They can act like a kidney. We won’t have 200,000 people on waiting lists for donor kidneys, we can just grow a kidney. The basic research to understand life IPSC, induced pluripotent stem cells, these cells can be sort of cajoled into becoming anything they want to grow up to be. Kidneys, livers, lungs, eyes, but there’s no industry there because it’s still all basic research. It’s where we were when Bell Labs said, we know what a semiconductor is, we know glass doesn’t conduct. We know copper does conduct. We have figured out how to dope this and this. And we can make something go from insulated, a conductor, solid state, instantly. We don’t need vacuum tubes. But that didn’t create what’s called Silicon Valley. That gave us the basic science, the material science of germanium. And well, it took a whole industry to grow up, to take this idea, this fundamental science and create the transistor, and then the integrated circuit. And then the digital world, as we knew, grew out of it, because we built a whole infrastructure from companies like Applied Materials that make wafers to companies like Intel, and people that write software and hardware and firmware. There’s a reason it’s called an ecosystem. There’s a reason that all those companies, over a hundred years ago, gathered around Detroit to build an ecosystem of steel and glass and rubber and engines and transmissions. And it’s the automotive industry. Where is the equivalent of the, we can manufacture replacement, human organs industry? Imagine what will happen to healthcare when you could go to your doctor and he says, “Well, your kidney’s function is failing. It looks like in a couple of years, you’re either going to be on dialysis. You’re going to need a kidney or you’re going to die.” Well, the best we do now is treat these chronic conditions. Nobody likes dialysis. I build a lot of that equipment. I can’t wait to put myself out of that business. Every diabetic that’s wearing a pump has a better life than being in ketoacidosis or insulin shot, but I can’t wait to put myself out of the insulin pump business. And there’ll be a day that we look back and wonder how crude was it that this is the way we did things. We kept people alive with these chronic treatments that are, that are so painful and so intrusive on their life. And by the way, those chronic conditions are bankrupting this country.

But what if we could say, oh, that doc says, yeah, it looks like you’re going to need a new kidney. Well, let me take a few of your cells, we’ll grow one up and in a few months, it’ll be ready. It’s a custom-made kidney. And by the way, when we put this kidney in you, your body won’t reject it because it’s not foreign. It was made from the original equipment manufacturer replacement organ. It was your mom and dad that put that DNA in you. And you put that DNA in this kidney. What if, just like, there’s an industry that gave us a digital world, and there’s an industry that gives us transportation that will soon be simple and safe and reliable. What if there was an industry that says your heart isn’t working? We’ll give you a new one.

Bryan Salesky

Yeah. So now I have to ask you the question that everybody asks me, which is how far away are we from it?

Dean Kamen

So, right now, we’ve only started this thing a little over three years ago and right now next door, as I said, I have 170 members, we’re growing pretty fast. And with one of those members that delivered the recipe, plus all my big existing companies that know how to bring things to scale like the Rockwells. We now have a closed system that you put one, one vial of IPSC, induced pluripotent STEM cells, at the front end of it, and in a completely isolated, wholly feedback-controlled set of loops, it moves that initial set of cells through a process that, at the end of 42 days, out comes a seven-centimeter-long segment of bone ligament bone that is ready for implantation. Now we don’t have an FDA approval yet, and that’s a relatively simple one, but by this time next year, a similar closed system that we’re building over there will have miniature pediatric hearts beating coming out of that system.

So, there are a lot of absolutely critical needs. I can’t give you a specific answer to when the industry will be there because it doesn’t appear as an instant. It evolves. What I’m trying to do is create not Silicon Valley, but Carbon Valley right here in this old mill yard. And I’m starting to get more and more of the incubators, and ironically, some of them actually have incubators in them that are among my 170 members. But over the next few years, you’ll see some of these cells, tissues, pieces of organs, and entire organs become reliably manufacturable at scale. And we will be working with the Food and Drug Administration to find ways to demonstrate that they’re safe and efficacious. And over the next five to ten years, you’ll see some of them start to become acceptable as a standard of care alternatives for people with chronic conditions. But I think, at the time you have kids, they will look back at the way we treat people now and be horrified by it. The way we look back at Civil War medicine. And I think that 30 or 40 years from today, most humans will expect that it will be as easy to replace a defective organ in them, as you would change the starting motor in your old classic car.

Alex Roy

The two words that really struck me, that Dean spoke and I’ve heard Bryan speak to are “at scale.” And that is the difference between invention and innovation. Dean Kamen in the founder of Deka Research and FIRST Robotics. Dean, thank you so much for coming on our show today.

Dean Kamen

Thank you.

Alex Roy

If you dug today’s episode, please hit us up on Twitter @NoParkingPod. Of course, I’m everywhere on social media @AlexRoy144. Please share No Parking with a friend. Like us. Subscribe. Give us a good review wherever you find your favorite podcasts. This show is managed by Civic Entertainment Group and our producer is the awesome Megan Harris.

And of course, my friend Bryan is the CEO and founder of Argo AI. 

Until next time, I’m Alex Roy, and this is the No Parking Podcast.