Dean of Invention's Joanne Colan Dishes on Game-Changing Gadgets


Photo via Planet Green

Planet Green is launching a new series this Friday, October 22nd called Dean of Invention. Viewers get to follow inventor Dean Kamen and co-host Joanne Colan as they travel the globe looking for the most mind-blowing, game-changing new innvetions that make the world a better place. As a green gadget geek, I'm really looking forward to the show so I was excited to get to ask co-host Joanne Colan about what the upcoming series has in store for us. Check out her favorite discoveries -- from helping people regain lost abilities to mitigating climate change -- and how this show will shape the next generation of inventors. TH: What is most exciting to you about working on Dean of Invention?

JC: It's incredible to look behind the curtain and see what the innovators we meet throughout the series have been working on. And the most amazing part is to realize how much unrecognized labor has gone into these technologies. Remember, we're looking at the cutting edge, but these folks have been working on these ideas for years, sometimes decades, and often without any sure sign that their work will bear the kind of fruit they hope for. A lot of these inventions and technologies are the result not only of inspiration, but unimaginable amounts of courage and hard work. And you can feel it when you meet these people and talk about their work.

TH: When it comes to solving the impacts of climate change, the list of areas we need help seems endless -- water purification, agricultural irrigation, monitoring and managing energy use, clean energy generation, monitoring and increasing biodiversity... What are some of the most exciting developments geared around coping with changing climates that you've learned about working on Dean of Invention.

JC: Well, here are a couple of examples: first of all, we are all aware that there's a lot of anticipation about how the electric car can lower emissions and diminish the amount of greenhouse gas we pump into the sky. What I got a really exciting look at is the way electric technology serves up all kinds of amazing new abilities and designs for the vehicles that use it. In Northern Italy, I saw a demonstration of driverless vehicles that are safer, and in a lot of ways smarter, than cars with humans behind the wheel. In California, I got an up-close and personal look at the Aptera, which has to be one of the sleekest cars ever built. And sleek means much more efficient. Both of those mobility inventions are direct descendants of the electric car technology we've been tinkering with for decades.

I also got an up too close look at poo power. In Ireland there's an unbelievably exciting sewage processing prototype that uses the fourth state of water to access the hidden gems in our poo. And you'll just have to take my word for it, there are valuable resources we flush away every day that could be harnessed in future and put to good use.

Sneak Peek

TH: Important technological breakthroughs often revolve around the medical field and finding solutions that can improve the lives of people from general health to mobility to heightening capabilities of lost senses. What is some of the most amazing work you've seen happening in these areas?

JC: There's no more important promise from new technology than its ability to make life better for people who are, in one way or another, trapped by illness or disability. In Zurich, I visited a lab where scientists are using high-powered magnets to guide a scalpel of miniscule proportions which will one day perform surgery inside your eye. At MIT and in Montreal, we saw some remarkable new innovations in microscopic robots that enter your bloodstream and carry treatment directly to a cancerous tumor, instead of requiring the full-body assault of poisonous chemotherapy. Remember, this isn't yet in use in hospitals, but they're getting close and it's really thrilling. Then at the University of Pittsburgh, I watched a team working with brain-computer interface that's working toward giving paralyzed people back the use of limbs - either robotic limbs or their own. That team works with monkeys who are able to control a four-jointed robot arm with the power of their thoughts. The implications for overcoming paralysis are really staggering.


TH: Dean of Invention showcases some of the coolest things going on in technology to make the world a better place. What does that mean to you and Dean?

You said it - this is the impetus behind the work Dean does, using technology to make the world better and in so doing, by being intelligent about the way things are done and the resources that are used, not make it worse off in the process. But Dean is not alone. It seems quite clear to me that the science and technology communities are all pretty united in a common goal to improve lives and ensure the stability of our habitat. What does that mean to us? Well, what else do we have?

TH: Have you come across anything that will be in everyone's homes in the next few years? The next cell phone or the next smart meter?

You may have heard of North Dumpling Island where Dean has tested and implemented several new technologies and successfully made the approximately two acres100% carbon neutral. These and other "green home" technologies are slowly but surely becoming more widely available. We hear a lot now about small 'off the grid' housing communities for example.

Closer to home for me, my older brother is living on a small sail boat off the north east coast of England where he is also using various technologies to make his environment carbon neutral and off the grid. He is experimenting with utilizing wind power from a turbine right off the boat and other single use applications. Naturally I'm proud of him but at the same time, his small scale floating operation shows it can be done. And it can be done today.

Sneak Peek

TH: Tell us more about the FIRST Robotics Competition.

JC: The FIRST competition is one of the wildest and most genuinely promising parties I've ever been to. Young kids, high school age for the most part, and all of them deep into the nitty-gritty of engineering. And I mean the really hard stuff like automation, remote sensing, visual motion tracking... And there's THOUSANDS of them. The energy is just incredibly positive, and joyful. These are smart young people, really the next generation of designers, engineers, and rocket scientists. They're finding a real love for what they're doing and a delight in this work at an age when most of us are figuring out what our favorite bands are. Dean likes to say that he started FIRST to use competition and a sports environment to turn kids on to the excitement of engineering. If that sounds improbable, if you doubt that that works, you should go the next national finals. It's a riot. I had a blast.

TH: How do you think Dean of Invention will shape the minds of viewers and stimulate the next generation of inventors?

Well, you know, it's often said that once someone comes up with a great idea, it seems obvious. Except that until they did, you would never ever have thought of it. I often had that experience working with these innovators. The fundamental underlying ideas behind their work were basic enough - except no one EVER thought of them before.

Best of all, when you were face-to-face with these ideas, and with these first-rate minds, you found your own horizons broadening at a tremendous clip. That was the best gift of all - true inspiration breeds more inspiration. It really can spread from one mind to the next, and I hope that viewers catch some of the fire these people have to offer.

There are a few surprises in the series when it comes to what sparked the thinking behind an invention - what's cotton candy doing in a lab where human vascular networks are being engineered? What's the connection between deer antlers and artificial limbs? Where did the idea of driverless cars come from? What do Shark Week and an electric car have in common?

TH: What are some of the inventions you're most excited for viewers to learn about?

Well in short, all of them! I hope like me you'll see that there are a lot of super smart people out there looking to solve some super complex problems. And that it's really wonderful to learn about new discoveries and developments going on around us because I think it offers new insight into our society, our world, the challenges we face and the limitless opportunities we have to overcome them.

Watch Dean of Invention Friday, 10/22 on Planet Green!

Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Electronics | Gadgets | Television

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