Address by Dean Kamen
Commencement 2007 remarks by Dean Kamen, who received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.
I have to tell you; I’m playing this game under protest. I didn’t know I’d have to speak after [honorands Eric Carle and Corey Harris] who are world-renowned for their ability to communicate. That’s not my thing. I also think they were very gracious and were offering you advice. I’m much too selfish for that; I have some urgent needs so I’m not here to give advice. I’m here recruiting. [laughter] I am looking for help. In my little companies, I need help, and some of you might want to be there. I’m also recruiting on behalf of about 6.3 billion people.
Let me make a couple of observations, because I’m sure some of you — woe is you — think you need sympathy. You’ve got student loans and all sorts of stuff to pay off. So, a little perspective on the world as I see it. Just pick up any newspaper. The polar caps are melting. There’s terrorism everywhere. We’re running out of fuel; we’re running out of air; we’re running out of water. The population is going to be nine billion people by the time you’re in your mid-career. It’s one depressing fact after another. Add to that, that a billion people on this planet live on less than a dollar a day. Four billion people, two-thirds of humanity, live on less than two dollars a day. So for those of you who are looking for sympathy — not here.
Students all over the world who are lucky enough to get an education ought to keep those facts in mind and keep asking yourselves the same question: If the world’s got all these problems, and we seem to be in a rush to create new ones, and we all believe we want them solved, who’s going to solve them? The four billion people who have a problem like, “Can I find water that won’t kill me or my kids, my babies”? Who’s going to solve them? People who are wondering whether there will be food around? The 1.6 billion people who have never used electricity?
There is a disproportionate capability among people on this planet to solve problems. We certainly can’t expect most of the people who don’t have the resources to be the ones who supply the solutions. That makes you a very small minority. I heard different definitions of “minority,” but educated people who understand the laws of nature, the rules of engineering, or the laws of man and economics and finance and politics and democracy are an incredibly small minority on this planet, and they have a huge advantage in the leverage and the control they have over the world’s physical and political environment. You don’t have to be an historian to know most of the time that leverage is used to help the rich get richer. You are able to think about how your education is going to enrich you.
You also ought to remember that if you are going to solve all problems that we’re facing in this world, it’s unlikely that the people and ideas that got us to where we are, are either the people or ideas that are going to get us to a different place. It’s going to require new people with new ideas [applause]. And that would be you.
By the way, if I sound pessimistic, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I am more optimistic than I’ve ever been my life. That’s because the power of technology — through the Internet, satellites — allows us to get ideas [snaps fingers] instantly anywhere in the world. The bad ideas will get there too, but the good ideas can move instantly. Resources can move instantly. I’m a tiny, tiny company. I have two villages in Bangladesh that I’m electrifying with boxes the size of this podium. They’ve been running for 24 weeks on nothing but cow dung. I’ve got a village in Honduras that we’re supplying absolutely pure water to with a box the size of this [podium]. Yeah, I have a day job, and we make stuff for people who can pay for it today. But what makes me enormously optimistic is the idea that the world is moving to a place where I think really good ideas are welcomed. With some urgency, the world is ready for change.
We’re moving from a world of stuff, from the idea that there’s a finite amount of gold out there, a finite amount of almost anything out there. Throughout all of history, people fought over stuff: land, fuel, stuff. But in your generation, the most value that will be created isn’t stuff anymore. It really is ideas. The Internet is an abstraction, and the value of Google exceeds the value of all the car makers. In a world that’s about ideas, it’s not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to win by someone else losing, where you have the gold or oil or water, and somebody else doesn’t.
In a world of ideas, you all create and share those ideas and everybody has more ideas in the end, whether it’s a cure for cancer, or a way to make water drinkable, or a way to make energy that’s non-polluting. And whether you like it or not, you are moving for the first time into a world where ideas matter more than all the stuff there is. But those ideas have to come from educated people and they have to be used as a tool and not as a weapon. That’s the biggest change that’s happening.
We’re also facing a world where finally people are realizing we’re all going to succeed together. In this world where it’s not a zero-sum game, where four billion more people creating new ideas will make us all richer, not compete with us to make us all poorer, the leadership of the educated will help the rest. It is a world where ideas matter, where the educated people can lead and help and be cheerleaders for everybody else instead of being competitors. It’s a world where the rate of change for the positive could exceed anything you can imagine. The alternative to that is something that’s unimaginable.
So I would beg every educated person in this world to remember, every day when you get up, that you are an incredibly small minority of all humanity. And with all the privileges I understand it gives us, I think it gives us an enormous responsibility to be leaders that do the right things for the right reasons. And remember that you can be doing good while you are doing well. You’ll all go out and get good jobs. But you’ll make your living by what you do in those jobs. You’ll make your life by what you give. Have a good life.