Dean Kamen is an engineer, inventor, and businessman. He holds hundreds of U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for medical devices including the iBOTTM mobility device, the first wearable infusion pump, the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics. He is perhaps best known for his invention of the Segway® Human Transporter.
He founded DEKA Research & Development Corporation as well as FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a global organization dedicated to helping young people understand and enjoy science and technology.
Kamen has received many awards including the National Medal of Technology in 2000, the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005.
What follows is an interview between Dean Kamen and Byron Reese, publisher of GigaOm, and author of the new book The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. They discuss artificial intelligence and future technology, and their impact on jobs, education, innovation.
Byron Reese: I want to start off by saying this show is about artificial intelligence. Let’s just start with that piece of technology. When people say, “Well what is it?” or “How should I feel about it?” What would you say?
Dean Kamen: I think the first thing people should do is not be afraid of putting those words together. The word ‘artificial’ to some people sounds bad. You don’t want to have artificial stuff in your food. You don’t want artificial stuff elsewhere. And the word ‘intelligence’ means very different things to very different people. So, putting those two words together makes a mess of language and thought.
But I would say to maybe make it a more constructive conversation, we can say that people, for the first few thousand years after we climbed out of the primordial ooze, would try to build things with their hands, which would get pretty tough I guess. And then somebody invented the first tool: a hammer or a shovel. Ok, those were artificial muscles. Then we, through the industrial revolution, created things substantially more capable than the shovel, like a bulldozer. And it eliminated all those jobs of those ditch diggers — because one bulldozer could do the job of a thousand ditch diggers. I’d call a bulldozer artificial muscle. And it probably gave you a thousand to one — or more — leverage over what you could do with your back-breaking work. But it didn’t eliminate jobs, because when you didn’t have a bulldozer, you might spend a whole life digging a hole big enough to make a house. Once you had a bulldozer, you didn’t eliminate the careers for a thousand people that might dig a hole You created the plausible possibility of paving for instance, North America with a super highway system.
So as we developed more artificial muscle, we built more and more things because we could, from roads to skyscrapers. And those people that somehow believe that as we use computers or computing technologies to eliminate the work that people used to do that’s drudgery or boring work, the idea that we’re going to eliminate jobs is equally silly as saying the bulldozer eliminated a career. No, it eliminated the horrible work that nobody wanted to do and gave people time to do way more magnificent things.
So I will call out artificial intelligence as the ability of the engineering community to move its capability to amplify not what your muscles used to do by building us the industrial revolution, but by amplifying what your thinking and problem solving capabilities are, because you’ve added the equivalent of an electronic bulldozer to eliminate the bulldozer, did something to the shovel, and the computer did something to the adding machine. In each case it opens up new opportunities to do more and more great stuff and to more and more young people, especially if they develop the skill sets to use these tools. And I hope they do it through my first robotics competition. I hope that more and more young people see ‘artificial intelligence’ as nothing more than saying, I don’t do back-breaking physical work due to the industrial revolution, I won’t be doing boring mental work due to artificial intelligence. I’ll leverage these technologies to build a better future and more capable career for myself. And that’s what it is.
Anybody who listens to the Voices in AI show knows I agree with every word you’ve just said. But the arguments that are sometimes brought against that viewpoint, believe me I hear them a lot. The first one is that, well, the change that is coming is going to come so fast, that it’s going to be severely disrupting. Do you think that there’s any merit to that?
I think every major change that has been wrought by technology permeates two things through the culture that’s experiencing it. To the pessimist, it brings fear, because people don’t like change. To the optimists, it brings excitement.
I’m sure when those first machines were made that could knit so quickly that all the people that knew how to make cloth by hand were terrified by the textile industry. I am again sure that the industrial revolution and steam engines and locomotives terrified all the people that were doing things that existed without the leverage of those technologies. And I’m sure equally that other people saw those technologies as opportunities to do more and better things for themselves and their community in the world. So, I think you are right.
There are certainly lots of people that are appropriately concerned that the skill sets they now have are going to be displaced by more efficient, more cost effective, maybe more accurate, more reliable, more stable systems, all lumped into something we call artificial intelligence. But those very same people ought to say, if I learn about these systems, I learn how to use them, design them, develop them, deploy them, it will give me opportunities to advance my career and my sights about the future, and be part of something that’s bigger and better than the past. That’s called innovation, that’s called progress.
I think it comes down in every generation to the fact that as the world changes, you have a choice. You can be on that bus, or you could be off that bus, and if you embrace technology, you have the opportunity to be on a bus that’s moving further and moving faster. Now having said that, by the way, you get on to a bus that’s bigger, heavier and faster moving than the one that you used to have and the scale of the impact of the accidents that can be caused are terrifying. But, again, this is not a new problem.
I’m sure the first tools that we made, using a rock as a hammer, can help you build something. Using the first hammer, you could break your thumb. Figuring out how to control fire, gave us the capability to stay warm and cook our food, and have light at night. It also gave us the capability to burn down our houses.
So, there is no technology that has only upside. In fact, I’d argue that the more potential upside that any new technology has, the more it can amplify what we do, by definition, it is just an amplifier. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s not immoral, it’s amoral. It’s an amplifier. It can help us do more good better; it can help people with nefarious goals do more bad, better.
And we need to deal with that. I think one way we deal with that is when we start teaching kids at an ever-earlier age about the power of technology, they also have to be taught not to use it as a weapon but to use it as a tool and not to simply do what you can do with technology, but to focus our efforts and do what we should with technology. And to kids that are lucky enough, that have the privilege to have access to advanced technologies, they should understand that with every privilege comes a responsibility.
I know in this country everybody runs around, saying “I’ve got my rights because of the Bill of Rights.” Well, maybe the founding fathers should have put right next to the Bill of Rights, the bill of responsibilities. Those people with capability need to use it wisely and prudently and help the rest.
So to those people that now claim the next big evolution in technology, which isn’t about amplifying muscles, it’s amplifying brains, it is going to be terrifying. I’m sure they were terrified by the locomotive, by the sewing machine. I think smart people have to recognize that there’s always risk when things change, and we need to continue to make sure that the changes net us all out to be in a better place, and we use those changes responsibly.
And then the second concern people have, and I think it’s one you share as well, is, do people have the education to do the jobs of the future? Talk a little bit about that, and what you’re doing in that regard.
So, now you hit one where I think there is a problem, but again, in any rapidly changing environment, where you displace the status quo, some people fall out of the bottom. I think we now have the changes happening not at what was typically the worker base in most industries, but these are changes that affect everything. And what are called white collared jobs or professional jobs are going to be potentially hugely impacted, and for some people in a negative way by ‘artificial intelligence’ because it was those white collar or professional jobs that required a lot of sophisticated thinking that now might be displaced by programs that can get to better results more quickly than the manual process of thinking was capable of doing, even a decade ago.
So I started this program called FIRST, for inspiration and recognition of Science and Technology, a few decades ago recognizing that the jobs of the future are going to need kids that have a much more sophisticated skill set as they get through even their junior high school and high school years to be ready for these career options. And the rate of change in the skill sets that will be necessary to have really interesting, exciting career opportunities over the next decade or two, are going to require a major change in our education system. Keeping kids lined up in rows, having them memorize facts that used to be important, because if you didn’t know it, where were you going to find it? [is an obsolete approach].
Now, every kid in the country is carrying around on his or her belt every fact known to man, in a very well-organized way to find those facts. So, education should no longer be giving you the disciplines and the toolsets that you used to need to go become a factory worker, learn how to follow instructions, learn how to do the same repetitive thing over and over again.
Education has to now be a much more sophisticated process of giving kids the toolsets and the understanding of how, for instance, to use ‘artificial intelligence,’ how to leverage the fact that information is now virtually free and what they need is to learn how to be systems innovators that add innovative ways for taking all this information and creating new opportunities to solve old problems. And that’s what I tried to do in the FIRST community and that’s what I think schools need to quickly embrace so that school, as we knew it, can remain relevant to kids and it could be worth them spending so much of their life in these locations.
Well put a little flesh on the bones. How would you do schools?
Well, one of the things I’ve urged every school in this country to do, is incorporate a FIRST program. I mean, we’ve known now for decades that kids will sit in class and for 45 minutes once a week do phonics or spelling, but then every day during the season, every day after school, for three hours they practice [sports], whether it’s the football season, or the baseball season, or the basketball season, or soccer.
Kids, in a free country, you get the best of what you celebrate, and we have great programs that turn kids into great athletes, because they put more time and effort and passion into that than they do in ‘academic’ stuff. We justify all of that, by the way, putting so much into our physical school environment, whether it’s the parquet floors on the basketball court or the side lawns for the football and baseball. We justify sports even though kids run the risk of being physically hurt. We justify it, almost exclusively by saying it’s critical that kids at an early age learn teamwork, and learn how to work together, compete in a positive way. Well, really, if teamwork is all that important, why when they do it in the classroom, do we still call it cheating?
So I said look, we have a model that works, that gets kids inspired. It’s called sports. What if we could take that kind of model, that kind of essentially…a program that’s an interactive project base like building a sports team, what if we could take that model, but make the content not bouncing a ball or kicking a ball or throwing. What if we could make the content developing the muscle hanging between their ears? What if we could create an opportunity within the school environment where kids could all participate in something where unlike in the other sport, every kid on a first team could turn pro.
There simply aren’t millions of jobs in the NBA, the NFL or Hollywood. There are millions of not just jobs, but there are millions of career opportunities to create whole new industries that you and I haven’t even conceived of yet, that will be created by, and available to the next generation of kids that understand technology, that understand how to work together, that understand how to stand on the shoulders of the giants that have delivered, e.g., microprocessors that have essentially now made computation free and memory is essentially free, and the speed and the power of these devices have now turned them all into commodities.
We need kids that know how to leverage those commodities to solve the world’s problems, to create the new industries, and I think schools should be giving kids the toolset and the environment to do that, and I think rather than line them up with twenty, or thirty year old text books where science to them is putting pins in a frog, I think FIRST has the real potential to change the environment and the culture in schools to turn them into places where kids are excited to participate, and come away with opportunities to create careers that they wouldn’t have imagined without FIRST.
So, take a step back just for the readers who may not be familiar with it. Describe what FIRST is.
FIRST, well the name stands for, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Notice the word ‘education’ isn’t in there. The same way as the word ‘education’ isn’t in little league baseball. I said look, let’s create an institution that we can offer to schools, that will give kids kits and parts, cutting edge technologies, almost exclusively donated by massive, fantastic corporate supporters we have across the country, across every industry, to give kids access to the most cutting-edge technologies, and software development tools. Let them take those kits or parts into their school and in a very exciting competitive short intense season, like any other sporting season, the schools will have these FIRST kits working between the kids, the teachers, the parents and the magic is the outside mentors from my 3700 corporate sponsors, pretty much every high tech company in this country and in the world now, embraces us because they need these kids more than these kids need them. So, it’s a win, win, win for everybody.
The kids win, the teachers win, the parents win, the companies win, but basically FIRST is a program that brings together all of these different entities and says, we’re going to not give you quizzes and tests, but we’re going to give you this aspirational, extracurricular activity during which you learn how to do programming, how do you do electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, systems, controls, team work, build your company, build your little team, get it out there, go compete in these tournaments.
And again, you could say it’s all about teaching kids how to build robots, but I’ve been saying for years, we have never started FIRST… the goal was never to figure out how to get to use robots as the output product that we measure. What we’ve now shortened it out to, is hey, everybody, we are not using kids to build robots. That would be slave labor. We are not using kids to build robots. We are using robots to build kids. We are using these robots as an example to kids of what happens when you give people a sophisticated tactical challenge of an open-ended set of tools and inspire them to just try to do it. There are no answers in the back of the book, there’s no one right way to do it. We’re not asking you to recall what we told you yesterday, that you took notes on, when you were sitting in your classroom.
We’re saying, there is this problem. And every different school is going to get the same kit of parts, and you’re all going to have six or eight weeks to turn that kit of parts into an operating system. And you’re going to put it out on that playing field, our playing fields are smaller than a basketball court, and you’re going to go head on in battles in a double elimination tournament against other kids and other schools that had other ideas on what’s the best way to accomplish this goal. And in the end, again, [there are] no quizzes, no tests. It’s bring the school band, bring the mascots, bring the cheerleaders, let’s go celebrate what we’ve all accomplished. Let’s go celebrate the creativity we’ve demonstrated, let’s go celebrate what we’ve learned about science and technology and engineering and problem solving.
It went from twenty three teams the first year we did it, to this year, we have over 61,000 schools from 83 countries, will be represented back here in Texas at the end of next month at the World Championship and then a couple of days later, because it was so big, we couldn’t get everybody here, a couple of days later we will do the second half of our World Championship, in Detroit, with thousands of these teams.
The passion that you see in these kids lets you know that despite all the crummy news we’re always hearing about technology — we’re running out of water and food, and the polar caps are melting and the environment is being… You know, news typically loves to make a spotlight around big problems — these kids just beam when you talk to them about these problems. They are showing self-confidence and their ability to innovate and their ability to deal with these issues in a positive way, and it renews your confidence, that, while the world has gotten better and better at being negative and pessimistic, if you give kids the right tools and the right mentorship, and first, if you inspire them, to recognize science and technology, you can walk away from our events believing that the future is going to be better than the past.
And how much of your time does all of that take?
Well, if I’m awake I’m working, so I probably work a normal forty or fifty or sixty-hour week in my day job. I have 500 engineers and in our day job, we design lots of critical systems for medical needs.
Let’s talk about DEKA. Let’s do that. You started it in 1982, it’s in New Hampshire, it’s focused on R & D.
Yeah, DEKA mostly does the front-end development of what we’d like to do, which is take advanced technologies as they get developed and come to scale, and then figure out how to apply them into a world where most people don’t apply them. As processors got better and better, and faster and faster, you had ever more realistic violence on video games. Well that’s great because we can do it, it’s easy.
But, once these big processors and faster processors and lower power processors got developed, we said, could we use those to make a better dialysis machine, one that might actually be so capable through monitoring itself through artificial intelligence that patients could do life support at home in their own bedroom. It’s more comfortable, there’s more dignity, it’s lower cost, it’s better outcomes. So, we didn’t invent microprocessors or sensors, or lithium batteries or solid-state gyros or things like iBots and Segways.
We are a company of systems integrators. We’re always looking at the world and saying, what new technologies have been developed, because some industry sees a need for huge amounts of them, whether it’s the gaming industry, or the defense industry, or the automotive industry, and we look at those technologies and say, now that they exist, could we system integrate them to make a better, simpler, smaller wearable drug delivery system, so somebody isn’t tied to a hospital. Or, can we make an iBot so that a paraplegic or a quadriplegic who hasn’t been able to look somebody in the eye, or go up a curb or a flight of stairs since their accident, or whatever [has mobility again]. Can we give them back that capability by bringing these technologies to the field of human health? And I now have 500 engineers working on various projects to do that. Just a couple of weeks ago, we put a pair of prosthetic arms on a guy that had lost both of his arms. This guy was bilaterally without arms.
Is this the Luke?
This is the Luke Arm.
You hold it above your head?
Yes, you sure can. And each one of the Luke Arms gives somebody substantially more capability than they had frankly with a plastic stick with the hook on the end of it, that they’d been using now for decades. But as I said a couple of weeks ago, with a lot of support from the Veterans Administration and DARPA and the military, we ended up putting onto a guy for the first time ever a pair of our prosthetic arms, and within a very short time, this guy stands up in front of frankly our Senator, they had to see it in New Hampshire, and he spreads both of his arms and looks at her and says, I’m ambidextrous now. And it was a great moment. So, I have a lot of engineers, as I said about 500 technical people in Manchester. We work mostly on systems to improve health care.
So, how does that work? In a way, you’ve done a fantastic job of systematizing the productization of technology through innovation. How do you go all the way from “we know how to do this really cool thing,” to “and there’s a business here?” How do you do that, because usually things get handed off multiple times and different people have different skill sets, but you kind of do both ends of it, and how have you managed to do that?
So, I mean technically I guess it was specifically, I’m really not an engineer. I studied physics, I love mathematics and logic. I have, I think some of the best engineers in the world in each of the disciplines you need to do these very multi-disciplinary projects that we do. We need mechanical engineers and electrical engineers, and systems engineers and controls engineers, but to your point, in most companies, they’re very vertical, and then they hand it off to a manufacturing group and then they hand it off to sales and marketing. And at DEKA, we’re a little bit different from that, and we look at the whole problem from end to end, and say, “Look, let’s be good systems integrators and let’s figure out how to take all the stuff that really did take, in many cases, decades to develop core technologies, but now that they’re here and they’re ready, let’s figure out how we can,– across all the engineering disciplines that would be necessary to do it, — create a new class of solution to an old problem.”
The most exciting one we’re doing right now and hopefully we’re going to get a lot of support from IEEE for this one, is we were just given at the end of the last administration, $80 million by the Department of Defense with the specific goal of, ok let’s take all those miracles happening in med schools and research labs, called regenerative medicine, let’s take those Petri dishes and roller bottles which have these little miracles in them and bring it to scale where 400,000 people that are right now waiting for a liver or a kidney or a lung are going to get one before, frankly, they die waiting. And the researchers that have literally broken down the problem of understanding life, how does a liver be a liver, how does a kidney do what it does, how does a pancreas make insulin. They know the answers to these questions, but they’re doing it in laboratory scale environments and we said, I am as unlikely tomorrow to wake up and suddenly understand all the cellular biologies as they are unlikely tomorrow to wake up and say, oh, verification, validation, process control, regulatory standards.
These things aren’t going to jump out of these roller bottles and Petri dishes and suddenly become an industry themselves. We need standards. We need the expertise and scale of companies that know how to take a prototype and make lots and lots of them, and if what we’re making lots and lots of are human organs, and human tissue, man you better get it right, because you’re putting it in somebody.
So, we said, look, as systems integrators, we think we can bring together probably dozens of them. We ended up bringing more than 80 companies: engineering companies, and manufacturing companies. In fact, there’s only one giant company I know who has the name ‘automation’ in their name, Rockwell Automation.
Well we went to Rockwell and their Chairman, Blake Moret, said, “Dean, I’ll not only support you, I’ll join [your] board” of this new entity called Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute. He kind of sat there and said, we, like anybody else, don’t know a whole lot about manufacturing whole human organs, because nobody has ever done it, but Dean, if you can bring the medical community and these researchers, and these guys that have or will win the Nobel Prize for their contributions to medicine, if you can bring those guys to the table, and you at that table can bring your systems integrators and the rest of the engineering industry and people that understand artificial intelligence and robotics, and if we can bring, for instance, IEEE and ASME, and NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology all together, so that when we show up at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and say, trust us, this is a real organ, it needs a standard, we know what the quality is, we can make these things, and make them safely, and we can make them in volume and we can make them affordable, that’s what Army is going to do.
And if it succeeds we will create a new industry, and that industry will be able to start supplying spare parts to humans and assure them of a higher quality of life than we now can offer people who find out their kidneys failed and we put them on dialysis. I built a lot of dialysis equipment. We are very proud that we’re helping to keep these people alive while they wait for a cure, but you wouldn’t want to be on dialysis, trust me.
We make lots of stuff to keep people going, but how much better could it be, if instead of keeping them alive with chronic treatment, how much better would it be if we could cure their condition. Somebody suffering from Macular Degeneration and they’re sitting there saying, I see less and less, and soon I’m not going to see at all. And maybe it’s your Mom or your Dad, what would it be like to say, oh, well go to this place and they’ll give you a new eye.
What would it be like to see that little kid that has to take insulin three times a day and say, oh, we’re going to give you a new pancreas. Imagine a world where you can safely and reliably replace organs that have stopped working in people and give them a new way to start. That’s what Army’s going to do.
You say “if” it works, but it isn’t going to a binary outcome, right? Some things will work, and some things won’t.
Fair enough. When I said, “if it works,” I didn’t mean that there is any chance whatsoever that we won’t eventually do it.
I should have said, “We’re doing this now, going down this path that we’ve created and what I’ve promised a whole lot of people, is that within five years there’ll be at least some evidence of some of these things that have gotten far enough that they’re actually now meeting realistic clinical needs.” Certainly, we’re not going to wake up one day and be able to do double click and say, send me a liver, send me a kidney. That’s not going to happen digitally, instantly.
We’ll start with simple things. Maybe it won’t be whole organs. It’ll be cells, it’ll be pieces of tissue, it’ll be cartilage, it’ll be skin, it’ll be bone, and then it will grow, no pun intended, into full organs, and in some cases those full organs, we will integrate the process again, not that we invented, but we know very well now that in a laboratory environment, we can take cells from an individual and through a very, very elegant process, turn them into what are called IPSCs, Induced pluripotent stem cells. We could take a cell from your body because all the cells in your body have the same information, [but] then why did one of them become an eyeball and one of them become a toenail? Well, they got differentiated.
But what if we could get a cell out of you and say, we’re going to put it back to what it looked like when you were an embryo. And what if we could take that cell from you and put it into a structure that would manufacture on a 3D printer that wants to be a kidney or a liver. And what if I could make these IPSC cells from you and that cell essentially can grow up to be whatever it wants. It could be a liver cell, it could be a hepatocyte, it could be an Islet cell, and it could make insulin.
What if we could, through the engineering capabilities, grow the physical structure and at the same time, develop a scalable process to take your cells and at just the right moment, coming down a ‘manufacturing line,’ take those cells from you, put them into this organ that we just grew, have those cells become a fully operating organ of that type, a liver, a lung, or a kidney, have it in a sterile environment, essentially delivered to the surgical suite, where the first time a human touched this manufactured product, it gets taken and it’s assembled back into you replacing the defective one, in the same way you take your car to the dealership and they take the old noisy cracked muffler off and put on a new muffler or a new started motor, or a new generator.
You’ve got this whole beautiful car, but if those spark plugs don’t work, the car is useless. If that starter motor won’t crank, the car is useless. Well, you’ve got this whole beautiful car, we have learned a long time ago to figure out how to replace the one or two parts that needed to be replaced to make the whole car work again.
What if we could do that for you, and if we did it by putting an organ back in you that was built from your own cells, and it won’t be rejected? You won’t need to spend the rest of your life taking immuno suppressive drugs to prevent it from being rejected, which gives you a higher quality of life, a lower cost medical system. Everybody wins.
So, my “if,” was not if that could be done. My if, was if our plan and the support we’re getting from government, from researchers, from the engineering community, from the standards community, from NIST, from IEEE, from the FDA…if all of those things come together to create what might be the most sophisticated, vertically integrated, manufacturing process the world has ever seen, we could transform medicine in two ways. We could give people a way better quality of life, and we will dramatically lower the costs that right now look like they’re going to bankrupt this country unless we come up with some great innovations.
Another thing I guess DEKA’s been working on that we’re interested in, is computer vision.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sure. As an example of two places where we’re in desperate need of better computer vision, in this Army advanced regenerative manufacturing, we’re trying to manufacture organs, but those organs have had some of their sub components, cells, literally cells, we’ve got to be able to see where they are, how are they moving, how are they duplicated, where are they putting themselves.
So, if we could create an environment in which some of the systems we’re developing to bring these things out of the laboratory don’t need a post doc sitting glued to a microscope and manually doing things. What if we could automate through vision systems, some of the process of monitoring and controlling the manufacture of things that have components that are literally smaller than human cells? That would be a huge win for us and we’re working on that.
And another place we want great vision systems is, I’m excited to say, we just got our next generation of iBot approved through the Food and Drug Administration and we’ve proven that’s it’s a very safe, reliable system to keep a person standing up. But just like anybody that stands up, you and I, if we’re not paying attention, we could trip, we can slip, we can step into that pothole, we miss that curb, and then we fall down. Well, what if we could add to our iBot systems that allow us to do local mapping to make sure that the device is even safer when the person that’s using it isn’t paying attention.
What if we could help prevent some of those slips and trips? So, now the computer vision has gotten to where the actual cameras are so small and so inexpensive and require so little power consumption. I mean everybody is walking around, and now on their smartphone they have a camera that has super high resolution, can operate in very low light, it’s very small, it’s very low powered. What if we now integrate that with again, some of the very sophisticated software that can look at images coming through these cameras and help us map the environment and make sure that what we’re doing is safe?
So, I think vision systems, because the hardware has gotten so much better and smaller and cheaper, and because the algorithms to take the data coming out of these cameras has gotten so much better, whether it’s a simple camera or a lidar system or an ultrasonic system, or some combination of all sorts of others, giving machines the capability to interact with the outside world that they’re in, and gather data in real-time without physical locations and things, is going hugely improve the capability of machines to do things we’d like them to do. Hence, the self-driving car.
And last question. You’re clearly an optimistic person about the future in a world that is full of people who aren’t. How are you seeing things differently than people who are more down on the future?
Well, I just think the world works like this: you never solve a problem until you can identify and define it. So naturally as we’ve gotten better and better with technology, we’re able to define more and more problems. That could be depressing to people. To me, it’s just a transition stage. Now that we’ve identified that problem, let’s go about solving it.
So there are those people that look at the world, and now ironically through technology, through those satellite images, we can see that, wow, we’re impacting the environment, we can prove to ourselves the polar caps are melting. We can take tests now that say, “Wow, you’re predisposed that you will have Parkinson’s disease” or “You will have Alzheimer’s,” and we develop more and more tools to help define problems. That’s always the first step. So people see those tools, and they get obsessed with…oh my gosh, I’m going to have this disease or that disease. But an optimist says, oh, now that I’ve defined that problem, I’ll put some grey matter to it; I’m going to solve that problem.
I’m sure sixty or seventy or eighty years ago, when they figured out, oh my gosh, Polio, this virus, it’s gone through the country and it’s just wreaking havoc. My grandparents were terrified that this disease would come and what if their kids got Polio. And then somebody figured out how to invent the iron lung so that if the Polio extended past your legs it would get up to your lungs which normally killed you. Then people, those pessimists, those guys that know how to extrapolate into the future are probably the same guys that are telling us that our health care system is going to bankrupt the country. They probably sat there and said, wait a minute, what if a few million kids next year get Polio and it gets so bad they need an iron lung.
Well it used to be as tragic as that; they would just die. But now, I’m sure they would have extrapolated in the next ten years, half the population of America is going to be kept alive lying in an iron lung and the other half of the population is going to be stuck to take care of them and we’ll all be bankrupt. Because they looked at the current state of data, the current state of what we knew, the current state of the problem. But they didn’t say, oh, don’t worry, in about ten years this visionary guy named Jonas Salk is going to come along, he’s going to realize that if you take the virus, kill it and then scratch it under somebody’s skin, they not only will not need an iron lung, they won’t even need the little things on the…they’ll never get Polio. And kids today are not only not afraid of Polio, they don’t know Polio, it’s gone, it’s over. And it didn’t bankrupt the country. It’s about the cheapest thing you can do. Kids are born; they get a bunch of vaccines, Smallpox, Polio.
So I think the people today that are similar to the ones that must have been worried back then about that problem, will always see the cost of everything and the value of nothing. They will always see this insurmountable set of problems and I’ve heard as a very young person that phrase, well every problem represents an opportunity. I think we are surrounded by merely insurmountable opportunity and I think smart people will dice up those problems, those opportunities into different pieces and if we can create an army, a large enough army of young kids… Back to FIRST, if we can create millions of kids that can spread themselves across all these opportunities, the generation of people alive today as the pessimists about health care, global warming, you name it, that generation of pessimists is going to see the next generation of smart, passionate kids, one by one, say, oh, well we’ve eliminated this problem on the global warming, we’ve eliminated this health care problem, we’ve now just created a vaccine against this cancer or Alzheimer’s or that.
Or, we’ve just figured out a way to make new organs for this, so you won’t need dialysis. I think the smart optimistic kids with the right toolsets will always stay one step ahead and in this constant race that we have in our society between the fear of catastrophe and the opportunity of success, the kids that are focused, that are optimistic, that work hard, that embrace technology, will be the kids that make sure in that race between catastrophe and success we will succeed.
And we will succeed if we invest in these kids and if we have policies that allow us to embrace innovation, and I’m hoping that our government leaders, our industry leaders, our parents, our schools, and most of all our kids will embrace innovation, will embrace hard work, will take reasonable risks and create a better world in the future, as has happened in every generation since we climbed out of the primordial ooze.
Well what a fantastic message and thank you for sharing it with our audience and thank you for taking the time.
You’re very welcome.