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Giving transport back to the people

Dean Kamen
Kamen: "The city needs a car like a fish needs a bicycle."

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(CNN) -- CNN talks to Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, about an urban renaissance and the need for more efficient transport in our cities.

CNN: It's been said the Segway will lead to a "reconfiguration of the way communities are built." What does that mean?

Dean Kamen: There's an irony in that when we talk about building communities we mean human communities, not structural ones.

One of the elegant things about the Segway is that you can dramatically change people's behavior and make the city more efficient and more fun without changing the way it's built.

When we invented the locomotive, the airplane and the automobile we had to put in an infrastructure. The infrastructure for the Segway already exists -- it's called a city.

A city is a highly dense place that is optimized for pedestrians. The only problem is they've now gotten so big it's no longer practical to walk from A to B.

What technology has helped the pedestrian? The Greeks slapped on their sandals and walked to the Parthenon. Now you slap on your sneakers and walk from 37th Street to 63rd Street.

CNN: Are we seeing the beginnings of an urban renaissance?

DK: From around the end of World War II pretty much everyone decided to move to the suburbs. What's happening now is that people have figured that spending an hour in the morning and at the end of the day commuting to and from the city isn't fun.

For the first time since the end of the war, the populations of many cities are going up. We're working toward cities that are exciting, efficient, effective environments. In 2000 China announced it was going to move 800 million people into cities over the next 20 years. Tourists want to visit cities more than most other places.

But the next generation is going to need something for its pedestrians in the same way Henry Ford invented something for people moving out of the cities. The city needs a car like a fish needs a bicycle.

CNN: You've talked about the Segway as putting a human being into a system where the machine acts as an extension of your body. Is that a trend in new technology?

DK: I think it's happening all the time in such subtle ways that people don't even recognize it. As processors get faster and as sensor technology allows us to have devices that are aware of their environment, I think you'll see technology just slide into the background and take care of tasks you don't even think about.

CNN: What are the big challenges that you feel innovators should be addressing?

DK: The largest single cause of human disease, the cause of 80 percent of illness, is water-borne pathogens. This year 5.2 million people will die because of bad water. Yet in rich countries we use drinkable water to wash our cars and flush our toilets. I think in the next century you will see that all but disappear. Water will become more costly than oil.

The goal in my mind is to give people a way to take any source of water and make it pure -- to put a box in the middle of a village that would supply drinking water, no matter what the contamination, for 100 people. We're testing a device now and we're very excited about it.

CNN: Your work seems grounded on a strong sense of the power of technology to improve people's lives.

DK: I'm looking to give people alternatives and options that give them a better quality of life. We shouldn't be asking what technology can do but what it should do. I think it should give people health, education and sustainable transportation.

An innovator is somebody who is trying to change what people do. If you're about to do that you'd better be careful and think not only about what your invention is going to do but also about what the consequences might be, because every technology ends up being used in ways that were not originally intended.

-- Dean Kamen is an inventor and entrepreneur specializing in medical technology. His best-known invention is the Segway scooter.

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