This correspondant had not heard of Dean Kamen or of his organisation FIRST before the ISA had announced that he was to be their keynote speaker at the ISA Automation Week being held in Houston (TX US) 5th to 7th October 2010.
He is an inventor of some note, famous in particular for the two wheeled Segway Human Transporter. In a way this is a trivial invention when compared to the list of his more important inventions which are perhaps more useful as they are in the medical field like a device for automatic insulin dosing and devices to help the immobile be more mobile and robotic devices of various types. They have significantly expanded medical technologies, saving or extending millions of lives. In his address he spoke about a prosthetic arm which he and his engineering team at DEKA Research & Development Corp. developed, helping those who have lost their limbs in war or through accident are helped once again to become capable of independent life. (This invention struck me particularly as it allowed people who had lost limbs a freedom and independence they may have thought had been lost forever – an extremely moving realisation!) More recently they are hard at work developing “green” machines that could provide mini-electrical grids and water purification for billions of people worldwide in developing and impoverished lands lacking electricity or pure drinking water.
All of this was a preamble to the thing that most preoccupies him, the lack of awareness and enthusiasm for technology and science in schools. The icons placed before young people today look on are the “celebraties”, actors, sports heroes, people who are famous for being famous. This means that the young people have as exemplars people the absence from the scene of which would make very little impact on human life.
The people who make little impact on their consciousness are the people who make the lights light, the water flow, the planes fly, the crops grow, the people healthy. Yet these people are dying off in the developed world who educate their young to be lawyers and bankers. That society cannot survive like this often misunderstood. It is not, as many think, a problem of supply. No, rather is it a problem of a lack of demand.
A sea change is required in attitudes and that is the passion in Dean Kamen’s life. He wants to create the demand for the next generation of scientists and technologists. He want to create a real enthusiasm among our young for science and technology. He wants to create the same enthusiasm in our young for science and technology that there is for football or the other sports. He calls on us to use the sports model to promote science and technology.
He formed his organisation in the eighties For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, with the very deliberate acronym FIRST, because as he says, “Nobody enters any competition to come second!”
His vision and that of FIRST is simple. “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Furthermore the mission he described as follows: “Our mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”
So there are two things here, the children, obviously, and the mentors, which are the science and technology companies. Companies like say National Instruments in the automation world.
We were talking to somebody on the National Instruments stand who was involved in their local team, specialising in robotics, which won their regional “heats” and went to the grand final in Atlanta (GA US). There they were soundly defeated, but, and this is the important thing, they were going to bounce back again next year with renewed enthusiasm. That’s the sports thing!
One point that Dean Kamen made was the fact that this “sport” was unique and different from all others. Everyone can win. Not everyone can be a footballer or a film star but everyone involved in First can become and engineer or a scientist, and an enthusiastic one.
Indeed to survive, the Western World’s science and technology community, and this includes the automation community, must support really and practically programmes like that of FIRST if we as a society want to keep the lights lighting and the water running.
That, I think, was the message so enthusiastically and passionately delivered by Dean Kamen was saying.
“So let’s do it!”