Technology's Odd Couple Teams Up For Science
IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. One of my next guests has invented dozens of devices, including the first wearable insulin pump, a wheelchair that can climb stairs, and the Segue personal transporter. My other guest is one of the world's biggest pop stars. You know him from songs like the hit "I Got A Feeling" and a 2008 music video, "Yes We Can."
Of course they are inventor Dean Kamen and Black Eyed Peas musician will.i.am, and together here on SCIENCE FRIDAY- for what purpose? Well, both of them are passionate about getting kids interested in science.
This year, this dynamic duo has teamed up to produce a back-to-school TV special. It's called "I Am First: Science Is Rock 'n' Roll." And it airs on ABC this Sunday.
Here in - are you with a student inspired by science and engineering? Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us a question @scifri. Let me reintroduce them.
Dean Kamen is president of DEKA Research and Development and the funder - excuse me, the founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition, and probably the funder of that also. will.i.am is a member of the supergroup the Black Eyed Peas. He's also the director of creative innovation at Intel, and they both join us from Los Angeles. Welcome back, Dean; good to meet you, will.i.am.
DEAN KAMEN: How are you?
FLATOW: Hi there. Can you tell us - you played the Super Bowl halftime show this year. So how did you end up playing the first halftime show of a robotics competition?
WILL.I.AM: It all happened together naturally, and you know, a lot of curiosity as I was writing my segue about who invented this machine. And that curiosity brought me to Dean Kamen. And while I was rehearsing for the Super Bowl, around that same time Dean Kamen educated me on the wonderful things they're doing with the kids and U.S. FIRST and invited me to New Hampshire for the kickoff. He was like, look, what are you doing on this particular day? I said, I'll be in Vegas doing work with Intel. He said, well, the next day you should fly out to New Hampshire. I was like, you know what? I'll do that. He was like yeah, you've got to see these kids.
These kids are doing amazing things. So I just had to see the inspiration because if he was pumped and enthused about what he had these kids doing around science, technology and engineering, I wanted to see that, right, because when I tour, a lot of engineers are on tour with us, building our stage, building our robotic - how our stage transforms, and all the rigs.
I know the importance of engineers. So I went. And I was blown away. And we thought of doing a concert, playing at halftime, you know, making a halftime show at the U.S. FIRST Robotics Competition in April. So I said: We've got to get this on TV because if we just play at the robotics competition, it's just going to be for that community. It needs to - how do we make it bigger and louder?
I said, I've got to get this on TV. So, you know, Dean, I thank you so much for trusting me and believing in my abilities to do that because, you know, I was really nervous, and I pulled it off. You know, I called ABC myself and got it on television, and you know, but the kids are - were the muse.
The kids were the reason why I couldn't take no for an answer, the reason why I, you know, put up my own money to do it, because usually the way it works is that the networks and, you know, the entity figure it out, but this was the opposite. We had to go backwards because this had never been done before.
FLATOW: Well, what is so motivating for you? We don't often hear musicians and rock stars wanting to help kids out in science.
WILL.I.AM: Well, someone helped me out when I was a kid.
WILL.I.AM: And music saved my life out of the ghetto that I'm from. And, you know, when I saw these kids and what they were doing, I was thinking, uh-oh, here comes another 20 years from now, my ghetto, even though I escaped from it, it's still my ghetto. My ghetto is still going to be a ghetto because I know my ghetto doesn't have this program, and these kids are going to go off, you know, and master at this skill, and they're going to create new devices, and they're going to invent new medical equipment, and people in my ghetto aren't.
And they're going to have to - there's going to be charities and philanthropy. That's not the only way to help ghettos is via philanthropy. The way to truly help ghettos is bring opportunity and jobs and change commerce in that community.
When there is a BMW dealership and not a used car dealership, someone changed that community. When there's a Mercedes dealership and not a second-hand - if there's a Louis Vuitton store and not a second-hand store; if there's a Whole Foods and not a liquor store; if there's a Chase Bank and not a check casher. That's how you - I've got to change my neighborhood.
FLATOW: Dean, were you shocked to get this call?
KAMEN: I was very surprised, and since I got the call out of the blue, even though for 20 years I've been saying to everybody that would listen to me, FIRST was originally put there to create an environment that would attract the world of sports and entertainment and would appeal to kids like the world of sports and entertainment does and would hopefully help create role models and heroes for these kids like the world of sports and entertainment does but when I got the call from Will late last year, it was just before the holidays, and he started the conversation pretty much by saying, Dean, I've seen you speak, and you start out by saying there are no real appropriate, serious role models and heroes for most kids in this country, I want to disagree.
And my immediate thought was not only did I get an unexpected call out of the blue, but it was going to be somebody from the world in sports and entertainment that's insulted or taking exception to my generalization. And I was getting prepared to defend myself.
But then Will said it's not true that there are no heroes in the world of science and technology. I know my industry depends on that. I depend on that. You guys are my hero. And I'd like to help you because I think you're right. I think most kids, like the kids where he grew up, don't have an opportunity to see the opportunities in science and technology, and there's lots more of those opportunities for many more kids to have great careers than there will be for people to grow up and succeed in music, like he did, or in sports.
And so we started talking about that, and Will made one of those dangerous mistakes that people that know me never make more than once. He said, what can I do to help?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAMEN: And I said: Well, you're doing the halftime show for some other big sport that's already established. You know, it's called the Super Bowl. You're doing that next month. Why don't you use that as a warm-up, and then in April you can do a really big halftime show for the Super Bowl of Smarts. There will only be two teams at the one you're doing in January, but this year, FIRST, if you count all our programs from Junior FIRST LEGO League right up through FIRST Robotics, our teams come from 56 countries, there's 22,000 schools that have competed, and we're going to be in a 70,000-seat domed stadium under the arch in St. Louis. You should come out and do our show.
And believe it or not, a phone call or two later in the middle of the winter, on short notice, he agreed, and as you just heard, I did invite him to be at the kick-off. He showed up. He announced that he would be there at the championship, and not only was he there with the Black Eyed Peas, but he, as you'll see on the show coming on Sunday night at 7:00, he managed to round up some of the other giant icons from the world of entertainment, a lot of his friends.
And they're there in the videos and talking about the importance and the fun and the accessibility of science and technology, but by the time we were getting ready to do that show, Will said again, what you just heard him say, which is, Dean, no matter how good our halftime show is, it's only going to have an impact on the few tens of thousands of people that are going to be in that arena.
The reason that the Super Bowl has such a big impact is because millions and millions and millions of people are watching it from their living room. So he said we've got to get the FIRST Robotics Championship and his concert on primetime network television.
FLATOW: And there you have it, Sunday night on ABC. will.i.am, is this - do you think this is a new branch of your career now, a little bit more...
WILL.I.AM: Yeah, I want to - you know, this is - gets me going so much. You know, I wake up in the morning - since February, I've woke up anticipating this day on Sunday. This is the first time I've ever done something like this. You know, I've never done a TV show before in my life.
Think about that. I've never done a TV show. That's crazy.
FLATOW: And now you're doing one about robotics.
WILL.I.AM: It's going to be on TV now, and the TV show is wonderful. You get inside these kids' heads and you see what gets them going. You get to know - they're people.
There's this one guy named Edgar, it changed his life. He was going to be a gangster on drugs. He had a child. And U.S. FIRST changed his life. Now he's going to make prosthetic hearts. Like how do you go from that? How do you go from I was going to go down this route, and now I'm going down this route, which they're not even connected.
He jumped from not A to Z but A to A to a billion. He - you know, this, it changed his life. How do I get that in my community? So I have this whole new mission now in my life, and that's to change my community. The community I escaped from, I have to change it so it looks like the community that I now live in.
KAMEN: And the good news, Ira, as I think you know, having watched FIRST develop over 20 years now, the story you just heard from Will about that one particular kid is repeated over and over and over again thousands and thousands and thousands of times over these years.
And we have all sorts of data now that shows the long-term effects are we do change the attitude and aspirations of these kids. We change where they put their time and their energy, and as a result of that change, they stay in school, they go to college, they become real leaders and real innovators in this country, and this world needs them more than ever.
FLATOW: All right, Dean, the time and place, this Sunday, 7:00 p.m. on ABC?
KAMEN: That's right. And by the way, Will might say this is the first time he's done TV, but this is quite a first time. You know, most of our big sponsors jumped at the chance of supporting it, companies, the big high-tech companies, some of the really iconic...
FLATOW: I've got to go, Dean.
KAMEN: All right - are all behind this.
FLATOW: "i.am.FIRST: Science is Rock 'n' Roll," on ABC this Sunday with will.i.am and Dean Kamen. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.
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