The innovating engineer gets a bum rap in American pop culture. He is either the slump-shouldered, pocket-protected geek or the unkempt mad scientist who just shrunk the kids.
Dean Kamen is cut from another mold. Athletic and articulate, he is perhaps best known for inventing the Segway Human Transporter. But Kamen's greatest invention is a new and improved public persona for the inventor/engineer. His FIRST Robotics Competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology; see www.usfirst.org), launched in 1989, teams as many as 70,000 young people a year with working engineers at events in more than 33 cities. This year's finals will be held in Atlanta's Georgia Domeon April 27-28. By getting "the Michael Jordans of science and technology in front of kids," the competitions give young people a taste of the real excitement of inventing something with their own hands, Kamen says.
As head of his own design shop, Deka Research & Development Corp., Kamen holds 150 patents and claims several firsts in medical electronics. EE Times' Rick Merritt talked with him on the eve of his keynote speech at this year's Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose, Calif.
EE Times: What is your message to today's engineers?
Dean Kamen: Engineers need to be more active in everything from public policy to helping kids think about their careers.
I think engineers do an incredible job in the background of literally keeping the trains on the tracks, the power plants running and the water drinkable. They get an A+ for keeping things in a healthy state.
But because of that, they are typically not out front, like entertainers, sports stars and political figures. Consequently, I think as people who can set an example for kids or show them opportunities or help them with a career, engineers get a D. We have to change that.
EET: On what policy issues do engineers need to have a stronger voice?
Kamen: Things like understanding the implications of technology and its intended and unintended consequences, especially as things get more complex. Engineers need to give leadership and guidance, frankly, to a lot of people who are well-meaning but don't have the technical background and advantages of scientists or engineers in assessing some of the big issues facing the public.
EET: Such as?
Kamen: Things that would appropriately make use of and protect our natural resources, such as what are the best methods of building products in sustainable ways and assessing trade-offs environmentally. The environment gets a lot of political heat when people make bold statements, but ultimately, if the facts are wrong the laws will be wrong. Bad facts make bad laws.
EET: Where do you see this playing out?
Kamen: The one area that's most obvious these days is energy. We need better ways to give people a reasonable amount of energy without doing an unreasonable amount of damage to our environment. We ought to have renewable energy and sustainable growth as a part of all our policies.
EET: What sort of renewable energy sources should we focus on?
Kamen: Solar and wind for sure, biological--there are lots of opportunities for exciting stuff to happen, and the technical community ought to be helping decide where we put our resources, not just respond to policies. Because sometimes the policies are misguided for lack of technical knowledge.
EET: How does this lack of engineering input play out in business decisions?
Kamen: Most of the projects we work on start out with people saying, "You can't do that." What they really mean is, "We haven't done that before."
If a project is a success, it moves from being indefensible to indispensable. But that transition requires a lot more than just the technology, it requires education.
EET: Can you give an example from your own career?
Kamen: This plays out in every project we've ever done. Thirty years ago, we made something that allowed a diabetes patient to go home and take their insulin from a pump. The whole medical community wasn't comfortable with that. It was not a function of whether the pump worked. Letting patients go home with their drug delivery systems required education. That had never happened before. Now it's a standard, and you wouldn't do it any other way.
EET: What's your engineer's view of the state of health care today?
Kamen: There's a terrible health care crisis in this country related to cost and accessibility. Yet a huge percentage of our heath care system is tied up in very inefficient and backward technologies. If the credit card industry was no more capable of transferring information securely and accurately than the medical field [is], there would be no company like American Express.
EET: The government seems to be gearing up to increase support of R&D generally. What do you think about that?
Kamen: That's a very good thing. Anytime we can encourage more R&D, we need to do it.
This country has gotten caught up in looking at very short-term objectives and narrowly focused objectives, and the business cycles keep getting shorter. Fundamental basic research is suffering because of that. One of the good ways to encourage people to do basic research is to make sure the patent system is strong.
EET: What do you think about all the calls for patent reform today?
Kamen: I think we need to be very vigilant about making sure intellectual property continues to be treated with great respect, because we are coming into a world where intellectual property is the most important kind of property there is.
Unfortunately, there is a move to erode the value of intellectual property, in part because some bad actors have been "gaming" the system. But when bad actors game the sports system and use steroids, they don't talk about shutting down professional baseball, they talk about sanctioning the players. I think we have to be very careful not to undermine the patent system, but just make sure the people who try to game the system don't get away with it.
EET: What do you recommend?
Kamen: We need to strengthen the patent system, not weaken it. We need to support the [U.S.] Patent Office to make sure there are enough really good, really competent examiners there, so there isn't a lot of delay and latency in getting patents reviewed and issued.
The quality needs to be good enough so that they don't let bad patents get issued, because that hurts everybody. Once they do issue patents, they should be given the respect and value they have to deserve in an organized society that's based on people being able to create intellectual property and benefit from it.
EET: Should patent litigation be reformed?
Kamen: Patent litigation would be dramatically less if we all had confidence that the patents issued were good patents, and people knew they were [other] people's property and you don't mess around and trespass on it.
EET: Do we need legislation?
Kamen: Legislators should be extremely careful before they mess around with a system that for well over 200 years has given us a leadership position in the world. The unintended consequences of messing with a system that goes right back to the Constitution could be very dangerous, and I would do that with great, great, great hesitation.
EET: Specifically, are you against legislation that would limit injunctions as part of patent litigation? It's an issue the Supreme Court will review this year.
Kamen: That's a very, very bad idea.
Kamen: If you own your property and don't want someone on it, I don't think you should be made to essentially give a compulsory license to third parties, and I don't think you should be prevented from disposing or not disposing of your property as you see fit.
EET: These days, patents are treated as products that are bought and sold at auctions and used as collateral for loans. Is that right?
Kamen: There are people who have figured out how to abuse every system. There is no way to ensure people will not play on the edge.
There's plenty of law out there to make sure people don't cheat the system, but destroying the system is going too far. We should not allow people to abuse the patent system, but the patent system itself needs to be protected.
April 5, 1951, Mineola, N.Y.
Honorary doctorates: Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 1992; Daniel Webster College, 1994; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1996; New Hampshire College, 1997; New Jersey Institute of Technology, 2000; Clarkson University, Babson College and Kettering University, 2001; Polytechnic University and University of Hartford, 2002; Northern Kentucky University and University of New York Binghamton, 2003; Wentworth Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University, 2004; University of South Carolina, Lawrence Technological University and North Carolina State University, 2005
Founder (1982) and president, Deka Research & Development Corp.; founder (1985) and chairman, Teletrol Systems Inc.; founder (1989), FIRST; founder (1998) and pres- ident, New Power Concepts LLC; founder (1999), Segway
• Fellow, American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, 1994
• Kilby Award Laureate, 1994
• National Academy of Engineering, 1997
• Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment, 1998
• Distinguished Public Service Medal, NASA, 2000
• National Medal of Technology, 2000
• The $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, 2002
• Ralph Coats Roe Medal, ASME International, 2002
• Commonwealth Award for Science and Invention, 2003
• New Freedom Award, U.S. Department of Labor, 2003
• Designing a Sustainable & Secure World Award, Green Cross International & Global Green USA, 2003
• National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee, 2005
• IEEE Honorary Membership, 2005