Monday, May 21, 2007


Robotics competitions, appropriate technology, and Hawaii's economy

Dean Kamen at an Oceanit lunch, Tuesday, May 15th.

Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway and the iBot wheelchair, is also an innovator who has saved lives through his medical applications, including a mobile dialysis system and the first insulin pump. Kamen visited Hawaii in support of Governor Lingle's Innovation Initiative program. Unnoticed by Kamen, a home-grown technology initiative was taking place in the conference room as he spoke to us.

You may remember how the whole world speculated back in 2001 about what Kamen's new secret invention would be. The revolutionary invention turned out to be the Segway. While the revolution itself is still in progress, it's clear that this guy is one of the world's technology leaders. To be able to sit five feet from him and breathe the same air he did is an experience I'll not soon forget.

Kamen spoke about, well, himself, and his inventions, including a water purification system still under development that could truly create a revolution, since much of the disease in the world is due to the lack of pure drinking water. He also promoted the FIRST competition (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a robotics contest held across the country that at the request of Gov. Lingle will also be held here in Hawaii.

Oceanit is certainly Hawaii's premier technology company and demonstrates that we can indeed have successful high-technology businesses here. It stands out, of course, as an exception. It would be strange if there were no high tech in any state, but (IMHO) stranger still if an isolated spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean becomes a "hub" or "center" of technology as our state government has long promoted. Looking around Oceanit's conference room I saw a remarkable crowd consisting of many of our technology leaders and technology promoters. Many thanks to Oceanit for hosting the Kamen presentation and for providing lunch.

Dean Kamen seems to be a guy who has things his own way. He arrived 25 minutes late for the presentation. One of his slides was of him dressed in casual jeans demonstrating his iBot wheelchair for President Clinton. You only do that if you can. He was told he had five minutes before he had to leave, but he ignored that and carried on until he was done. He then said he would take exactly one question and did so.

So I believe that there will be robotics competitions for high school students in Hawaii, because Dean Kamen said there will be. And it will be a good thing for Hawaii.

Kamen made all the right visits during his trip. Before the Oceanit lunch he had met with Pat Hamamoto, school superintendent. He also met with the newspaper editorial boards. His visit was reflected in an Advertiser editorial the next day, Robotics competition not just about robots. Reflecting Kamen's words at the Oceanit lunch, the Advertiser observes:
When Gov. Linda Lingle unveiled her new Innovation Initiative back in January, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math skills in Hawai'i students, it all sounded very, well, innovative. It was the kind of jump-start our state needed to keep our youth competitive in a diverse economy — not just on the Mainland, but here at home.

But let's face it, when the governor talked of bringing a regional robotics competition to the state next year, you had to wonder how such an event fit in with those goals. Sure, it sounded fun, but would it attract and affect only youth who were already excelling, while leaving those who actually needed the extra help behind?

At a recent editorial board meeting, Dean Kamen, who created the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics Competition, made one thing abundantly clear: It's about more than just robots.

In fact, an independent study by Brandeis University found that participants were three times as likely to major in engineering, twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology, and nearly four times as likely to pursue a career in engineering.
The editors may not have noticed that the fact that "participants were three times as likely to major in engineering..." etc. is not contradictory to the point that it may benefit only "youth who were already excelling." Rephrased, "youth who are already excelling are three times as likely to major in engineering..." etc.

I still think having a robotics competition here is a great thing, but we still need to be on the alert for the hype, for the high-tech promoters promoting their own promotion, with little effect on the economy in the end. The editorial concludes with:
That's not just fun, it's crucial to our state's economy and our children's future.
This is only partially correct. The competition should inspire our students to enter engineering or science, but to find jobs in their chosen fields they will have to leave the islands. It's true today and will likely be true tomorrow. Indeed, improving science education is crucial, but so is improving reading and math, areas where Hawaii comes out less than favorably. It's also important to have job opportunities here in the state, which is unlikely.

So great for the students, because they will indeed be inspired to seek high-tech employment, wherever it is. Hawaii as a state has more to do before its economy will benefit from that.

There was, however, a revolution in progress in that conference room. Ryan Ozawa and Burt Lum, two leaders of Hawaii's grassroots high-tech movement, were streaming the talk over their portable rigs. Here's a pic of them talking with DBEDT's Ted Liu while waiting for Dean Kamen to arrive.

Perhaps readers are familiar with Justin wears a camera wherever he goes. Burt and Ryan were doing something similar. They had a two-way interface going which would have permitted anyone tuning in to their web pages to participate by posing questions for Kamen, for example (if Kamen had taken more than just that one).

They did this on their own, with their own equipment, without grants, without DBEDT, without the governor's innovation initiative. They just did it. And for a state divided into islands so that Neighbor Island participation in Oahu meetings is most often impossible, solving this problem alone might be more "crucial to our state's economy" than robotics competitions.

While it's not the same as being there in person, imagine that you could at least sit at your home or work computer, attend a talk, and through your "human avatar" pose questions. There's no restriction to text, why not have your actual voice be heard at the remote location.

One could give testimony at the Legislature, participate in award ceremonies, question visitors, government officials, and so forth.

Who knows where this will go. But while Kamen does his thing on the Mainland, maybe our own innovators are busy at work on technology that will provide us with real benefit, and doesn't involve throwing more tax money after an unattainable dream. Maybe DBEDT could put some attention into watering the grass roots.


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