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Segway inventor scoots to bigger matters

From potable water to portable energy, maverick inventor Dean Kamen discusses his top concerns.

No problem is too big for Dean Kamen's imagination to tackle.

Five years after its ballyhooed launch, his Segway gets more use from tourists and than from urban commuters. Far from untangling traffic jams and ushering in an era of greener cities, the electric scooter suffered a sweeping recall this fall.

But wait and see, Kamen says. His stair-climbing iBot robo-chair, which and allows its users to "stand" 6 feet tall, became available this month for disabled veterans to buy under federal health plans.

The maverick inventor is preoccupied with even bigger matters these days--like serving clean water to some billion people who would die without it each year. Pour sewage into his Slingshot device, and out comes drinking water as safe as Evian.

Kamen hopes to deliver this, as well as an offgrid source of electricity in dishwasher-size boxes, throughout the developing world through microfinancing. In the meantime, the college dropout is striving to wean the youngest generation off a pop culture diet and give kids an appetite for technology through the sports-like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) science tournaments he founded.

Kamen still spends some free time on his tiny island off the coast of New York state, where he prints money with the value of pi. Although he seceded from the United States after running into red tape to erect a wind turbine, don't call him a tree hugger.

I'm more interested in any project that has the net result of giving people better lives, and I agree it has to be in a sustainable way.

We caught up by telephone with Kamen at Deka Research & Development, which he founded, in Manchester, N.H.

Q: Some of your inventions seem to have in common an approach to environmental problems.
Kamen: I'm more interested in any project that has the net result of giving people better lives, and I agree that it has to be in a sustainable way. Certainly, these days, most rational people are more concerned that the subtle and unintended consequences of how we do what we do keeps adding to the burden of our rather fragile environment. I'm concerned about building medical equipment, giving disabled people mobility, giving kids a reasonable shot at where to focus so they can have good careers and be good citizens.

All of those things are done in the context of having a higher sensitivity and awareness. We're making water for the world, which is not only serving the No. 1 health problem but also helping clean up the environment in the process. I'd like to think we're sensitive to all the environmental issues as a background to what we do, but I wouldn't call myself an environmentalist.

What's new with your clean-water and portable-energy projects?
Kamen: They're in very different stages of development right now. (The Slingshot) takes any water, whether it's from the ocean or from toxic chemicals. No matter what's wrong with the water, we'll clean it up and make it potable, pure water.

The energy source is very environmentally friendly. Many of its big advantages include not needing extra maintenance or a power grid. It'll burn any fuel. We ran for 24 weeks two units in two separate villages in Bangladesh, and the only fuel that went into them was cow dung sitting in a pit next to them, going through a natural decomposition process. Yet they ran perfectly and gave these villages electricity.

We have more prototypes and data on electricity generation projects than on water, but for lots of reasons, the urgency around getting some water machines out has been more of our focus. We're further along and hope to be able to introduce water sooner than generation.

Clean tech is the third-largest area of investment for venture capitalists. Do you notice an increase in attention to your projects around clean technology?
Kamen: We all know that venture capitalists have great enthusiasm but a very short attention span. I hope it's not a fad or a mood. I hope that it is a fundamental change that will last for a very significant period of time and affect people's awareness when they decide what technologies to develop and put in the world.

Yes, I am absolutely seeing a rather dramatic and accelerating interest by lots of people, venture capitalists included, in technologies that have potential to not only create a particular product that solves a particular market need, but also that has an environmentally happy footprint.

Many scientists say we may only have 10 to 20 years to slow down climate change. Do you believe that?
Kamen: I'm not competent to give an answer to that. The good news is, instead of having great debate, why don't we all just say, let's be more efficient, let's use less fuel and do less damage to the environment. Let's make it a goal that we will continue to minimize all these negative effects, and we all win with it.

What kinds of new energy technologies look good for both the developing and the developed world?
Kamen: The obvious one that's just waiting for a technical transition that makes it cheap and reliable is solar energy. I think it'll happen and relatively quickly in the grand scheme of things, and the world will be a better place. The price of oil has gone up dramatically. It is certainly a problem for our generation, but it's going to end up being a gift to the next generation.

Do you use solar or wind power at home?
Kamen: I have a bunch of wind turbines, and I do as much of that stuff as I can.

Do you use the Segway on a regular basis?
Kamen: Oh yeah, I use all sorts of things. I've got airplanes, I've got helicopters, big trucks, Humvees, fire engines. I've got little cars, I've got an electric car, I've got an 1899 steam car. There's a place for dump trucks, helicopters, Humvees. It's very easy to paint with a broad brush who's good for the environment and who's bad. The simple solutions (like driving only little cars) tend to be naive.

Yes, I use a Segway, but I wouldn't get on it and try to cross the country with it. I'm not a naive tree hugger who believes that everybody should use a Segway to get around.

I'm not a naive tree hugger who believes that everybody should use a Segway to get around.

How do you feel about how people are using the Segway, given the recent recall?
Kamen: If it's a really good idea, you wonder why everybody doesn't do it and do it quickly. But I invented insulin pumps for diabetics when I was in college and my brother was in medical school. It took a couple of years to develop the product. It took 15 years for it to become standard of care. Even with Moore's Law, people keep changing at the same slow rate they always change. The new generation has to do it their way, and the old generation is going to take a generation to change the way they think.

The iBot's a perfect example. Do I believe that 10 years from today, someone is going to be sitting in a power wheelchair saying, "I can't go up a curb. No, I can't reach anything on the stove. Why should I be at eye level looking at people?"

It's absurd to me that anybody will be doing that. But in the meantime, somebody is going to read about an iBot. And by tonight, they'll get out of their wheelchair and get back into bed and get back into it in the morning. I'm sure that 100 years ago, Thomas Edison had invented the lightbulb, but people got their newspaper, they lit their candle, and they read about that lightbulb. They kept lighting those candles and reading about the lightbulb for years.

I cannot explain to you where people derive the sense of when it's time to change and when they'll give up the security of where they are. I've come to believe the whole definition of technology ought to be anything that wasn't available when you were a kid. To your grandmother, technology is the television; to your parents, technology is the computer. To kids today, the Internet is infrastructure. They don't even think about it as technology.

How much time do you spend on the Internet?
Kamen: Not a lot. I'm not one of these people that spends most of my time at a desk. You get on Google, and you're done. I don't spend hours and hours a day cruising the Internet.

You've said that you'd like children to view scientists as rock stars, as cultural heroes.
Kamen: In our current culture, most kids are way more interested in sports, entertainment, Hollywood and the NBA than they are in developing analytic and mathematical skills, science, and understanding how to separate fact from nonsense. So I think a valuable way to leverage the media is to make science and technology as attractive as a sporting event. What the Little League is to baseball, we have the FIRST Lego League for middle schoolers.

One year, the theme was to build these things that would help people in the disabled community. Next year, the whole theme for the FIRST Lego competition is going to be around energy and power.

We had 45,000 professional engineers and scientists donate their time to mentor teens last year. By almost any metric, the thing is growing phenomenally. This year, we opened conference registration on our Web site, and within 48 hours, had something like 23 of our cities over capacity. We had to close out registration. Now we're over 10,000 schools.

What would you like to be different about technology today?
Kamen: One of the chilling things is, there are a lot of people out there that are antitechnology. Their solution is to say, let's replace this technology with no technology; let's go backward. The answer should be, let's replace this bad technology with better technology, and let's go forward. Getting rid of unintended consequences shouldn't be accomplished by rolling back the intellectual clock, because in the process of doing that, you'll wipe out a lot of good stuff.

How do U.S. laws affect inventors like yourself?
Kamen: Some people have found a way to game the patent system, just the way they gamed the accounting system at WorldCom and Enron. In those cases, we don't say, let's stop the world from having accounting and banking systems. But some people who have a loud voice in this debate about reforming the patent system in effect are saying, let's get rid of these; they make products expensive.

They might make that product more expensive for a limited time while that patent exists, but all the things you take for granted today are a result of people literally devoting their lives in search of great new solutions, trying to get that brass ring. How much of that entire process would be undermined by patent system reform, I don't know.