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Dean Kamen: Cultural inertia is main tech barrier

Inventor says societal priorities and resistance to change slow adoption of potentially superior tech, including a water purification and power generation system he developed for poor countries.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Dean Kamen, who best known as the inventor of the Segway scooter, has come to realize that people pose much tougher challenges than machines.

Kamen, who heads design and engineering company Deka Research and Development, said that in his many years of working in technologies, he has found that the time it takes to develop new products is often eclipsed by the time it takes to bring something to market. Among his many credits, Kamen lists many medical devices, including machines for home dialysis, Pap tests, stents, the iBot wheelchair, and its offshoot, the Segway.

Dean Kamen at the Better World conference at MIT. Martin LaMonica/CNET

But even though technology is evolving faster and faster in all fields, getting regulatory approval and business and acceptance is at least a big a challenge as technical issues, Kamen said on Friday during a talk here at the Better World conference, hosted by the MIT Enterprise Forum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

"Don't gauge the rate at which you will be an instant success by how quickly you can develop the technology," he told would-be entrepreneurs. "I would gauge how long it takes the collective culture--any culture--to give up something, even if they are frustrated or unhappy with it, and accept something different. The rate of emotional, intellectual, cultural, and regulatory inertia of the world is very high. It used to be much lower in this country, but even that is changing."

He said many technology breakthroughs come by applying the principles of one field into another. "Rotor head" engineers at Deka, who had worked on helicopters, were able to develop a better stent for medical purposes because of their experience with metallurgy. The Segway, meanwhile, was "almost a fun, weekend offshoot" after developing the iBot by integrating a number of existing technologies.

For the last 10 years, Kamen has been working on machines to purify water and generate electricity on a small scale for the billions of people in the world who don't have access to clean water or electricity. For about two years, he tested the two systems--both about the size of a large outdoor air-conditioning unit--in Bangladesh, and they were successful.

"The rate of emotional, intellectual, cultural, and regulatory inertia of the world is very high. It used to be much lower in this country, but even that is changing"
--Dean Kamen

The centralized model of power generation and water distribution, common in the United States, Europe, and other industrialized countries, is unlikely to happen in poor countries, he concluded. Like computing and other fields, the technical trend is to make things smaller and distributed.

Beyond the tests, the Deka water purification and electricity generation systems have not been deployed. Kamen blamed this on entrenched ways of doing business in target areas. "It's politics, it's business models, it's where humanity puts its priorities," he said.

The water purification system does not use membranes, filters, or other traditional techniques, but rather relies on electricity to run a vapor compression distiller that can treat very dirty water. The electricity generation system runs a high-pressure Stirling engine. In the Bangladesh test, it was fueled by the methane from decomposing cow dung.

As a condition for all his public talks, Kamen finished up his speech at MIT with a discussion of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization that seeks to inspire children by bringing the glamour and competition of sports to science and technology. The competitions, for which teams from 56 countries build and test robots, Legos, or other creations at events, was called "the WWF, but with smart people" by former president George H.W. Bush.