Recently, I interviewed master inventor Dean Kamen, well known as the inventor of the stair climbing wheelchair and the Segway, as well as the creator of the FIRST Robotics competitions for school children. I explained to Dean how R&D World’s Global Funding Forecast was reporting that China will outspend the U.S. for the very first time in R&D in 2021.
As our report predicts, China will invest $622 billion in R&D this year, versus $599 billion for the U.S. I asked Dean what he thought about China’s R&D investments in areas like robotics and AI — and from a technology standpoint, are we going to keep up? Did this concern him at all? Here is his insightful answer.
Yes, it concerns me a lot, but I think overly simplistically saying, no, we as a country should always spend more than anybody in the world is both neither practical or fair or realistic. They have a multiple of our population, they eat a multiple of the amount of food we eat every day, even if it’s the same amount per capita. The fact is, they have less food per capita, but they still eat more than we do. You have to normalize that. So, it’ll come a point, I hope, where the world has a much better distribution of educated people that are all working on solving problems. And part of me says, “I’d rather have 10 times as many people racing towards curing this form of cancer or that form of cancer before I find out it’s the one I have.”
I think, whether we come up with a great new engine that doesn’t pollute, whether that’s invented in the U.S. or China, or Israel — or any other country in the world — as long as it’s properly disseminated, we all win. In a world where good ideas can be spread across the whole globe, why wouldn’t we want as many smart kids everywhere doing that? But having said that, am I worried that it’s not just that China is spending more and more on research and development, but maybe on a per capita basis, the U.S. isn’t doing everything it should be doing to stay globally competitive? I am worried about that.
All you have to do is look at this country. We started out with 13 little colonies that somehow escaped from one of the biggest empires the world had ever seen. And these 13 little colonies certainly didn’t start with massive amounts of libraries and universities and research institutions like all of Europe had, or thousands of years of China. Yet, from the time this country became what we now think of as America, from the very beginning, we just screamed ahead of the rest of the world in terms of almost every metric that we claim we value today: public education, standard of living, quality of life, access to health, you name it. How could that be?
How did that happen? This country was about innovators. They created wealth. We didn’t conquer other countries. We didn’t take over other countries. We were a country built on innovation. It’s not a coincidence that Thomas Edison was here, that Wilbur and Orville Wright were here. When you look at the history throughout the industrial revolution and up until today, whether you think about the modern versions of some of these super innovative companies, whether it’s Apple or Google, they are here, and they create industries, they create great jobs, they create a future.
And by the way, a lot of the technologies they create are sustaining and protecting our independence and our freedom. So, if America has any question about whether there’s a return on investment at the government level for research and development, all they have to do is ask themselves why has America always been so uniquely great and always outpacing the rest of the world? And if we stop investing in innovation, I really want most of these people that think there’s a debate about that to look in the mirror and say, “You think you’re just entitled to a better standard of living? You think it’s just going to come free because of what your great-grandparents once did?”
America needs to keep reinvesting in its future, in education, in kids, in innovation, taking the risks, reasonable risks, and doing things first, and doing things best, and doing things that are scalable, and doing things that will be valuable to us, and then valuable around the rest of the world, so that we can maintain and justifiably maintain a high standard of living without doing it at the expense of other people. I think, ironically, a lot of countries in the world have figured this out, while we’re sitting back taking it for granted.
A lot of countries around the world, not just China, are highly motivated to make technology, STEM education for their kids, a very, very high priority, because they just look at the model, America. They all think that’s a great, great, great aspirational model to have. They don’t think it’s because we have Democrats or Republicans, they think it’s because we’ve been innovative — and we have technology available to so many people that have this high standard of living because we use these technologies. And the rest of the world is determined to create that next wave of technology where they are.
Let’s make it a competition where we all win because everybody’s creating more and better technologies at a faster rate, hopefully to keep us ahead of disasters, whether that’s global warming or other shortages. But as the rest of the world picks up their pace, yes, I am worried. If the U.S. doesn’t pick up our pace, we’re going to wake up one day and say, “Huh, we’ve lost that edge, we’ve lost that lead.” We can’t assume that this is going to be the best place for all of us to retire. That’s not a birthright, that’s something that every generation has earned. And I want our culture to make it clear to the next generation, the kids, “You better earn it, or you won’t have it.”
For more information on the FIRST Robotics program, please visit www.firstinspires.org.