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The Dean of Invention: Segway Mastermind Probes Sci-Tech's Future [Video]

Dean Kamen's new television program takes viewers on a behind-the-scenes look at cutting-edge research in hopes of inspiring a new generation of scientists, engineers and inventors
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© LARRY GREENEMEIER/SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Ask a random person on the street to name his or her five favorite scientists, chances are you would hear a litany of familiar names—perhaps Marie Curie, Albert Einstein or Louis Pasteur—all of them instrumental in casting the world in which we live. Much less likely would be a recital of contemporary researchers hard at work shaping the work in which we will live.

If inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen has his way, the names of some of these architects of the future will roll off the tongue just as easily as those of the giants of the past after the premiere of his new television program—aptly named "Dean of Invention"—later this week.

The show, which debuts October 22 at 10 P.M. Eastern time on Discovery Channel's Planet Green, follows Kamen and co-host Joanne Colan as they travel the world in search of new developments in a variety of fields, including biotech, energy, genomics, nanotech and robotics. At each stop the viewer has the opportunity to meet the people under the lab coats as Kamen and Colan ask the researchers to explain the methodologies, failures and breakthroughs that have defined their work.

The show's goal is to convince the viewing public that science, technology, invention and engineering are in fact "fun, cool, accessible, rewarding, important," says Kamen, who is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Segway personal transporter. "Too often in our culture we seem to believe that science and technology are important, but it's for those weird, special people that are willing to dedicate themselves like monks, going off into a laboratory to cure our diseases and solve our problems."

The key to encouraging young people to pursue science and engineering is to bring not just the science and technology to life, but the people behind this work as well, says Kamen, whose other projects include FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program he created in 1989 to get kids interested in science, technology and engineering.

With so many different areas of science and technology to choose from, Colan says the show opted to create episodes around hot-button issues including aviation, bionics and mobility and waste management as well as more obscure topics including regenerative medicine and brain-to-computer interfaces. Meeting the researchers in person humanizes their work, says Colan, who hosted the popular video blog Rocketboom from 2006 to 2009, adding, "It provides insight when you realize how hard people work behind closed doors—in machine shops or in laboratories—when they're committed to a vision."

This week's episode focuses on developments in "microbot technology," or efforts to create tiny machines that may someday heal the human body without the need for surgery. The episode begins with Colan visiting the lab of Brad Kratochvil at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he and his team are developing miniature robots powered by magnets. Kratochvil describes how these microbots might someday be injected into the eye to perform high-precision retinal repairs without invasive surgery.

Kamen praises Kratochvil's work but then points to some of the challenges the technology may face moving forward, for example the fact that magnetism is effective over only short distances. This takes Kamen to the show's second segment, where he meets with researchers Sylvain Martel and Evan Shechter at Montréal Polytechnic School, who use MRI magnets to steer microbots (30 times smaller than Kratochvil's) designed to move throughout the body's circulatory system. When placed in the vicinity of a cancerous tumor, these tiny delivery robots would release a payload of cancer-fighting medicine.

Noting that many cancers are not localized in individual tumors but instead spread throughout the body, Kamen spends the show's third and final segment interviewing Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) scientists Sangeeta Bhatia and Geoffrey von Maltzahn, who more recently joined venture capital firm Flagship Ventures. Von Maltzahn and Bhatia are developing ways to use nanobots nearly 500 times smaller than Montréal Polytechnic's microbots that can find their way to cancerous tumors without needing to be guided from outside the body.

Kamen hopes that his program can showcase science and engineering in a way that convinces kids to devote some of their time, energy and passion to learning math, physics and analytic skills. "If they do, this country may be able to sustain itself as a world leader" in areas such as innovation, wealth creation and standard of living, he says. "If we don't manage to turn this generation into a group of people that want to lead the world in innovation, I think it's very unlikely that the U.S. will retain its world-class position."

 
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