Dean Kamen Moves to Reinvent Culture
Prolific inventor. Social critic. Activist. Dropout. Multimillionaire. Dean Kamen overcame dyslexia and ADHD to amass a fortune developing portable medical equipment and the Segway human transporter, among other technologies. Now he and his DEKA Research and Development Corp. are working on ways to deliver cheap and clean water and power to poor nations. Oh yeah, he’s also on a mission to rewire American culture and usher in a new era of innovation.
By Mike Drummond
Every generation or so, someone with gifted intellect, lofty ambition and abundant charisma comes along to stir our imagination, to reset our collective notion of what’s possible, to rock our world.
Edison helped usher the age of light. Einstein expanded concepts of the universe. Steve Jobs redefined the alchemy of technology, function and form.
Let’s add Dean Kamen to the list of luminaries.
Kamen’s catalog of inventions alone throws him into rarified company: the wearable AutoSyringe that delivers accurate doses of medication 24/7, the portable dialysis machine, the stair-climbing iBOT wheelchair, a low-cost water filter for under-developed countries, the Stirling hybrid automobile engine that also produces electricity, and the Segway human transporter, to name a few.
You’ll find a common theme in each of these innovations. All are aimed to help humans lead better lives.
He has earned recognition and awards for his inventive prowess, including the National Medal of Technology in 2000, the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002 and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. His company, DEKA Research and Development Corp. founded in 1982, makes an undisclosed mint developing innovations for corporations and governments.
But Kamen also scores points in our book for being quirky, in short an inventor’s inventor. His wardrobe consists almost entirely of denim and work boots. He flies his own helicopter to his Manchester, N.H., office. His custom-built home has secret passages. He possesses more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents. He’s a college dropout. He’s a multimillionaire.
One of his biggest pet peeves is wasting time. Life is so short in time’s grand continuum, he’s all about making the most of what we have now. He’s devoted his life to inventing, but he concentrates on the big-picture – solving world hunger, alleviating suffering … stuff that Miss America contestants are always talking about. He recoils at the seemingly endless stream of consumer products (what he calls “junk”) filling our shopping malls and online retail outlets. If you’re going to invent, so his credo goes, invent something that matters.
Mark my words, one day they’ll make a movie about this guy.
And when they do, they’ll certainly devote considerable screen time to his overriding passion – obsession, really – FIRST or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It’s a suite of competitions for grade schoolers to high school students. The marquee events are robotics contests that pair high school teams with professional engineers from the likes of DuPont, Honeywell and NASA. The teams build robots from standard kits and pit them against each other on a playing field.
Kamen, dismayed to learn many American teenagers were more enamored with celebrities than scientists, launched FIRST in 1992. Just 28 teams competed in one New Hampshire gym that year.
This year some 1,680 teams – representing more than 150,000 kids in all – competed across the country, culminating with the finals in April at the massive Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The competitions teach teamwork, alliance-building, engineering, science, math and other life skills. As Kamen is fond of noting, young people have a far better chance of rewarding careers as engineers or scientists than they ever would as Hollywood actors or professional athletes.
Despite the growth of FIRST, Kamen remains dismayed that American youth still know more about the comings and goings of celebrities and sports figures than they do about our leading engineers and scientists.
In the following interview, the longest and most in-depth we’ve ever printed, Kamen takes us on a journey of cultural critique and explores the passion and frustration he experiences with trying to change our nation’s narrative and priorities.
ID: You’ve been getting lot of media exposure this year. Is that by design or is it just sort of an alignment of the stars?
DK: If by design you mean we pay a PR firm or whatever, no, we don’t have one of those. It’s not by design. In fact, my rule is always the same. I’ll talk to anyone anywhere in the press as long as they’ll let me talk about FIRST and shamelessly grovel for support. What I get out of it, particularly talking to someone like you, is a conduit to reach the kinds of people who matter to me. We talk to people who we think can help us promote things that matter to us.
ID: Let the record show that last year we made plans to have you on our August cover. August is National Inventors Month.
DK: I would suspect in the last 10 or 20 years, most people would not have cared about that sort of thing. They’d have laughed at that. But in the current political, economic and global environment, the word ‘inventor’ and the concept of innovation has become galvanizing to people as a really essential component of what’s going to solve the world’s economic problems.
ID: That gives me chills. We talk about this sort of thing a lot in my professional circle. Moving on: What does Johnson & Johnson’s decision to discontinue making the iBOT this year say about our society and innovation?
DK: I have not seen the story. But I would tell you as recently as a week or two ago a woman called me following up on the fact that veterans couldn’t get the iBOT. She was asking the same questions you were, but from a very different perspective. As I said to her, in the news these days every story is the same – there’s a good guy and a bad guy and you always make it black-and-white and simple and there’s always a winner and a loser.
Watching the iBOT go out of production is not because there’s a bad guy. J & J spent more than $100 million trying to get this thing to the people who need it. And there are no winners and losers in this case. There are just losers and losers, because there’s a huge opportunity cost there that will not be recovered by a company that spent a lot of money. And there are losers who will not be able to benefit from this thing.
To me the issue here is the fact that technology has so far exceeded in terms of rate of change the ability of people to adopt public policy. CMMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) has a reimbursement strategy for all wheelchairs, and that’s what they’ll pay for a wheelchair. And then we come along, and just like Moore’s Law predicts, create what’s arguably the world’s most sophisticated autonomous robot, and of course you can’t build that for the same price as a wheelchair. That’s not a failure of technology. The fact the iBOT could be developed and approved by the FDA, which is no trivial task, in less time than the other piece of government, CMMS, could get around to creating a reimbursement policy consistent with giving people this technology puts the technology at risk. J & J is a company, not a philanthropy. Their product would never be reimbursed at a price that makes it attractive to manufacturing it. I think that was a failure of public policy, not a failure of J & J or the Veterans Administration and I hope not a failure of DEKA to build a safe product.
ID: You talk about the failure of public policy, but what does this say about the iBOT itself? Does it need any enhancements to fit into the public policy paradigm now? Or is it public policy that needs to shift?
DK: That’s a really good question. That’s such a good question I’m sure I don’t have a complete and good answer. But I can give you pieces of an answer. If the iBOT somehow can be morphed and changed and made simpler or cheaper or have more features – certainly when the computer came out it took five or 10 years before it came down a cost curve and there was enough software. Like all technologies, they come down a cost curve and come up a reliability curve, they come up an acceptance curve. So I think to some extent the next generation of whatever an iBOT should be will be hopefully better, simpler and cheaper and at the same time public policy is going to recognize this. We used to put leeches on people when they had a fever. And we came to understand that antibiotics are a lot better solution. Once you realize that this country has no trouble spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on pharmaceuticals … I think there’s this intersection of public policy moving in one direction and the cost of technology moving in another, so finally they intersect. I think for sure public policy for iBOT reimbursements is going to have to change. And over time I’d like to think that we can make a better device at a better cost.
ID: You and I served as advisory board members for Doug Hall’s Planet Eureka, the open innovation marketplace for inventors and manufacturers (Doug Hall Places His Bet, May 2009). What’s your assessment of the initiative?
DK: I’ve had a few follow-up conversations with Doug. I really think he’s doing a good service by trying to demystify or debunk some of the myths that are associated and related to what inventors and entrepreneurs do. I think his service will probably be as valuable to would-be inventors and entrepreneurs as it is to the rest of the society with whom they deal.
He thought it was odd, I think, that I take the perspective that many inventors fail because they expect too much of the upside of what they do. Inventors are always out there whining and bemoaning the fact they don’t have all the benefit of what they invented.
In an extreme case, I as an inventor get to have all the fun of creating a new thing. But if I need to partner with somebody who’s going to do all the massive work of putting it into production, making sure that the global reach of the company can repetitively build high quantities of high quality goods at low cost – that skill set and that set of resources and that commitment is huge. And companies that do that deserve a significant piece of the prize for doing it well.
Unless the inventor is willing to spend in many case five, 10, 15 years or more building all of those resources, then that’s the difference between a science fair project and something that really is helping the lives of thousands or millions of people. Inventors are typically good at thinking out of the box. Big companies are good at consistency. I think the inventor ought to go off and do more inventing. And the company can be better by developing more of the inventor’s inventions. It’s win-win-win. Win for inventors because they get to do more inventing. Win for the companies because they get to leverage all their resources. And it’s a win for the world because we all get to benefit from the new products and services.
ID: I guess what I’m hearing is Doug Hall’s platform is a good venue to manage inventor expectations.
DK: I guess that’s why you’re a writer. I’ll give you an A-plus for saying in one sentence what I took five minutes to say.
ID: So, you’re into robots. I am too. I made a promise to take my kids to the Georgia Dome next year to watch the FIRST competition.
DK: Fantastic! You gotta promise me you’ll take them, because they’ll be hooked.
ID: Getting my son hooked isn’t the problem. He’s 12 and like any red-blooded American boy, he loves robots. Getting my 16-year-old daughter interested in science, technology, engineering or math, that’s a more difficult row to hoe. I don’t know if it’s something in her DNA or what.
DK: No! No, it’s our culture. It’s the American culture. In every way our culture manages to convince everybody, but particularly women and minorities, that science and engineering are cold, analytic, esoteric boring things only done by middle-age white males with German accents with frizzy hair and are sociopaths out there to destroy the world.
If a young person is ever depicted in any movie or billboard or magazine it’s always a weird squeaky voice, counter-culture kid that everybody picks on. If it’s a woman, it’s usually the least attractive possible package. While we all joke and laugh at the never-ending representations of those stereotypes, we take it as so normal now that the popular kids are always the jocks and cheerleaders. I think that stereotype is so devastating to the culture of this country. It is a significant piece of why we’re losing the global race in terms of continuing to have the most innovative economy on the planet.
We not only are taking most of the women and minorities and just knocking out of them any desire for trying out for that (science) team by the time they’re 10 or 12 years old, but we’re taking the rest of these kids that are bright and funneling them into accounting and financial engineering so we get things like Enron and Worldcom.
We need the real stuff. We need inventions. We need real innovation. It’s not a coincidence that it was this country that delivered the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, almost every invention that kids take for granted whether it was the telephone, the Internet or space ships. They happened in this country because we had a culture that used to celebrate the risk takers and celebrate the people willing to try big ideas even if they’d fail and fail. But eventually they’d succeed. And we’d root for the underdog.
Now in this country we root for the underdog in sports and mindless physical contests of violence, but in science and technology, no more. And I think the effect of that is chilling.
ID: Sally Ride talked to us about this in an interview we did with her a couple of years ago.
DK: I had her speak at one of our FIRST events! She’s great.
ID: She is great and she speaks the same language you do. Why don’t you partner with Sally Ride Science or Lemelson InvenTeams or Microsoft’s Imagine Cup? Why don’t we see cooperation among these and other like organizations?
DK: The long and short answer is we should be doing even more. We are working with Microsoft. They’re supporters of us and are getting bigger. I won the Lemelson Prize (in 2002), a half a million dollars, the largest in the world right now, and I donated it in its entirety to FIRST on the presumption it would continue to get them and the rest of the people involved at Lemelson to support FIRST even more and that is happening.
All the people who share this common vision of how important it is to have more kids turned on to the importance, relevance, excitement and opportunities in science should be singing as a choir. If we don’t get our voice louder than the garbage that’s now filling the space out there, kids are going to draw virtually all of their role models, all their heroes, all of their ideas about their futures from one of two places – the world of entertainment and the world of sports. The last time I checked, sports and entertainment are not the source of our collective wealth.
ID: We’ve reported on the so-called Singularity, this notion that computers with artificial intelligence will become self-aware and surpass human cognitive abilities. You were among those who wrote a blurb on the back of Ray Kurweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near. Care to share your thoughts on Singularity?
DK: Far be it for me to be the dissenting voice on the power of technology or contradict Ray Kurzweil, who is a very smart guy who’s given a lot more thought to the particulars of this than I have.
I almost think you can’t give a right answer to what is the wrong question. I’m not sure that any of the metrics that are being used to determine if and when the computer will ‘have more cognitive capabilities’ than a person are really irrelevant. When will that day come? The answer is, who cares. It’s probably a non-event. It may have already happened. Pick up a calculator and randomly type in, say, 3,654 times 21,917 and hit enter. I have the answer that’s more than likely exactly right. That’s not a little faster than you or I could do it, that’s orders of magnitude faster. So what. It’s a tool. I think that the computer is a tool. It’s doing more and more and getting better and better. But other than humans are fascinated by metrics and competitions, I’m not sure what the metric or competition is to determine at what point the computer wins at some particular goal.
I think there’s a lot to be said to reading Ray’s book and to be thinking about some of the possibilities, opportunities and consequences, which are potentially negative, of computers that not only have great digital calculating prowess but have better sensors and better devices to interact with their surroundings. As we develop better suites of interface transducers, which are far, far, far more crude than computing now, as the transducers and sensors get better and better, so will the interaction with silicon-based devices. There are a lot of great things that will happen. But not to dismiss it as an academic exercise, I’m not sure that by calculating on some qualitative standards if, when and how the computer will out-do the raw cognitive power of the human brain. Whew. I’m not sure that’s a debate that matters or is resolvable.
ID: I guess sort of riffing on that then, how can scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians elevate the human condition?
DK: Ahhhhh, that’s a great question! I think that’s the only thing they should be doing. I think the first question any scientist or engineer or inventor ought to ask himself or herself is not to think of the immediate consequence, you know, the intellectual victory of accomplishing some goal through the application of some basic law of physics or application of some really cool tool of engineering. But ask, ‘If I do this, if I accomplish this goal using the leverage of all the technology that’s available to me, what will be the intended and unintended consequences if this thing becomes a huge success?’
It’s far more likely that the scientists and engineers, if they think about those questions before they start on a big project, it’s far more likely that they’ll pick the important projects.
And by example, we know that today billions of people live on $2 a day, many live on less than that. And yet we sit here and try to make the Internet faster and faster and faster. I’ll agree with you that when it was as slow as a teletype it wasn’t practical. But once we got the bandwidth to where we could download the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a matter of a few seconds, it’s not clear to me what the goal is for all the global technology gurus. So we’re multiplying the (download) speed by 10 so you can get even more realistic cartoons spurting blood out of a gratuitously violent video game, which is not particularly any more exciting than Pong was 30 years ago as an exercise in hand-and-eye coordination. Should we be doubling the speed or doubling the numbers of people who have access to information?
Science and engineering owes the rest of the world some assurance that you will think long and hard about what you do with technology and make sure that in the end, all the trade-offs, and there will always be trade-offs even when we try to do the right thing, we’ve chosen a path that leaves the world in a better place than when we found it. And if we’re not sure that’s the case, I’m not sure we should go down those paths.
Scientists and engineers are probably better equipped to understand the consequences of what we do. But until relatively recently they were not expected to weigh those considerations. They were sort of like the engine and somebody else was driving the boat or the bulldozer. I think scientists and engineers ought to have a louder voice in where we go with technology.
ID: You sound like an altruistic capitalist.
DK: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. Capitalism can and should be, and in fact ultimately is, only sustainable if it’s a win-win. If you’re a capitalist only trying to extract wealth from the world, we’ve seen that. That is Enron. That is Worldcom. That is the banking scandals and reselling debt and creating mythical fortunes. I think real capitalism is a method by which we use science and technology and human resources to create wealth that wasn’t there before. Not move it around. Not create schemes. Financial engineering, as we’ve now seen, doesn’t work.
ID: How did your late father, a comic book illustrator, influence you and your areas of interest?
DK: You know until a few years ago with great confidence would have answered that question for you and I’m happy to tell you that the answer I would have given at the time would have been entirely wrong.
There was a time, and I don’t mean as a kid, but as a full-grown adult, that I thought my father and I couldn’t be more different. He’s an artist. And I’m an engineer/scientist or whatever. He could see the beauty in everything and had talent. I have no talent. I couldn’t draw a straight line with an edge. My father couldn’t add two-digit numbers if there were a carry in there and get the right answer. We couldn’t be more different. I’m in business. My father was an artist. He got up every day and did something he loved and left my mother to write the checks and pay the bills. I don’t think my father ever had a clue on how we ever earned money. Without my mother he couldn’t do it.
I would now tell you, because other people have pointed it out to me, ‘Dean, you’re exactly like your father. He was an individual guy, never had had a job, worked for himself, created things from his own imagination, through his own passion, presented them to the world and hoped that the world would pay him so he could sustain himself and earn a living. You do exactly the same thing, but you use a different palette than he did. You use technology. He used a canvas. You’re both self-employed. You’re both individual people who create things.’
I’ve come to think more and more about that. I think my father’s influence on me is that he gave me the self-confidence that I need to pursue things that really matter to me. That I’ve tried to make my career out of doing the things that I love doing. That’s what he did as an artist and that’s what I do. So I think that we’re very similar and I think my whole perspective on what I do now as an adult is pretty much what I watched my father did when I was a kid.
ID: Let’s talk about FIRST. Where has it faltered and where has it flown in your opinion?
DK: That’s actually a question where I can throw the guilt ball back at you, and I’ll use ‘you’ generically as the media.
I think where we’ve succeeded is having a huge impact on every kid who’s been involved in FIRST. The data shows we’ve overwhelmingly changed their career choices. They’ve stayed in school. They studied. Their value system has been impacted because we have substance. They’re not just building robots. What’ve they’ve built is self-confidence. What they’ve built is relationships with serious adults. They’ve built so many personal and team experiences that we’ve changed their fundamental perspectives. So it meets or exceeds all my expectations.
We started with some 20-odd teams in 1992 and doubled the second year and doubled again, and now you look at us this year we closed out a season in 10 cities around the United States. We finished not in a high school gym but in the 72,000-seat Georgia Dome. It was extraordinary. By growth, if you compared us to science fairs, again, I’d say we’ve been wildly successful.
So, where do we fail? I’ve failed miserably at getting this program into the hearts and minds of all the rest of the kids who aren’t on a (FIRST) team, whose schools don’t have a team. Our culture is not even a mile wide and an inch deep anymore. It’s 3,000 miles wide and a nanometer deep. Every kid by the time they’re 8, 9, 10 years old in this country knows who Britney Spears is and who Paris Hilton is. But none of those people is going to influence your quality of life or standard of living, but we all know who they are.
FIRST, on the other hand, is so deep when we get into the schools and what kids do with their time. We are so deep we literally change their culture. But you go five miles from a school where we’ve had FIRST teams for 10 years, and no one’s ever heard of us. So we are a mile deep, but we have no breadth. Unless you’re in a school with a FIRST team, you’ve never even heard of us. There are two types of people in the world – those who are passionate about FIRST and those who have never heard of it. So I’d say we’d get a really low grade, even a failing grade, at figuring out how to leverage this great program so that more kids, more parents, more teachers, more mentors will know about us and get us into their schools more quickly. And to me the way to do that in a media-driven culture in the 21st century is about television and a deep dive into media in every form. For whatever reason we have not been able to do a good enough job of capturing media attention to become part of the culture for so many of these kids.
ID: Maybe our magazine can help promote FIRST on an ongoing basis, perhaps with some dedicated editorial space.
DK: I’ll be bet that on a percentage basis the number of people in the technical community that read your magazine could then see that as a call to action if you present that right. The pool is probably pretty damn large.
Anything you can do leading up to it, rather than reporting on it after so the public sees this as an amusing, passing interest story, but anything leading up to the events, creating rivalries between the teams, you know, would be great.
ID: I’ll talk with your people and we’ll see what we can do. Let me ask you this: If Dean Kamen could reinvent the nation’s education system, what would that look like?
DK: That’s really hard to say because I’m not so sure the problem is our education system. It’s the rest of our culture.
I think if kids showed up at school as passionate about getting on a varsity algebra team as they did a varsity football team. If kids get up early and work out the muscle hanging between their ears for two hours to get on some team and then work out all summer to get ready for the fall season. If you look at what our culture has done to create passion among kids mostly for distraction and nonsense, if we had a culture, a culture where you get what you celebrate. If we had a culture that celebrated intellectual, academic, technical achievements in the same way we create idols from the world of sports and entertainment, when kids go to a school for eight hours to think and learn, they’d do just fine.
I think blaming the educational system for the fact that so many kids are not technically competent is taking a cheap shot at teachers and not looking in the mirror and saying, ‘You know what? We get what we deserve in this country.’
ID: In reflecting on your own body of innovations, what are the key facilitators and impediments to breakthrough innovation?
DK: That’s another really great question. I think it’s a complex one. Almost every project we do ends up being a spaghetti bowl of options. If you ever get a solution, the world tends to draw a straight line to where you ended and said, ‘Oh, they did this and added this and then got that.’ When in reality you crawled along every length and width of that bowl of spaghetti and you finally came out the other side somehow.
I wish I could tell you. I wish I could tell myself a good process for articulating or how we get from some outrageous idea to how we get to actually delivering a real solution to a technical problem. It’s a complicated, frustrating set of events that in real time keeps changing and changing and changing until every once in awhile you end up succeeding.
ID: You have any prior FIRST participants on your payroll at DEKA?
DK: Oh, lots. Most of the young engineers we’ve hired over the years, more and more lately because there’s a bigger pool of alumni out there, a lot of the people who apply for a position at DEKA turned out to be people who we know through FIRST. For all your readers, they should know that FIRST is a great recruiting tool.
ID: Where do you see the more promising areas of new discovery or new innovation?
DK: Energy. The Industrial Revolution has sort of been, no pun intended, fueled by cheap energy. It was so cheap that most of the innovation wasn’t about creating more energy. The output you got was so high it didn’t really matter how much energy it took to get that output. You built a steam engine, and even if it was 5 percent thermodynamically efficient, who cares. I think for a long time energy was essentially free. So there were not a lot of reasons for finding ways to use it more efficiently. But now, suddenly, both the environmental issues and the geopolitical issues, as well as the financial issues associated with supplying copious quantities of energy to six billion people are such that it now looks like a huge opportunity where innovation is going to make huge, huge, huge changes in the way we live and think about energy.
I think nanotechnology is changing the world in the material science in a big way, both in the fundamental materials and applications.
And I think we’re entering a real golden age in understanding life in terms of genomics, really understanding at a level that was unheard of even 20 or 30 years ago. I think there are large areas where you are going to see literally breathtaking innovations in the next five to 10 years.
ID: In listening to you, you sound at turns a pessimist and an optimist. Are humanity’s best days ahead?
DK: Absolutely positively. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool optimist. I think the only thing we really, really need to focus on is not any one problem that seems to be the crisis du jour. While we’re all focusing on that one problem, we run the risk that one we haven’t even thought about is going to eat our lunch. I think we all have to focus on creating the next generation of kids that are so technically savvy that they can deal with an ever-increasing weight of ever-more potentially devastating problems. It’s an ongoing race between education and catastrophe. And if education wins, if we have the larger part of six billion people leveraging technology through the Internet and other resources, I think the rate at which the world sees innovation and creation of real wealth will be literally unimaginable compared to what your parents and grandparents would have seen and thought. I just think we have to redouble our efforts to creating kids who are capable of dealing with the future.
Dean Kamen Factoids:
Born 4.5.1951, Rockville Centre, N.Y.
His home just outside Manchester, N.H., operates on wind and solar power
Owns and flies a jet and a helicopter
He makes clocks for relaxation
He has many honorary degrees, but he’s a dropout from Worcester Polytechnic Institute
While still a college undergraduate, he invented the first wearable infusion pump
Founded his first medical device company, AutoSyringe Inc., to manufacture and market the pumps in 1976
He sold that company to Baxter International Corp. in 1982
In the mid-1990s, he devised a phone book-sized dialysis machine
Holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents
Awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2000
Awarded the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002
Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005
Launched FIRST, a national high school robotics, science and engineering competition, in 1992
Rather than do homework in junior high, he read texts such as Isaac Newton’s Principia … then heckled his science teacher
As a teen, he built control systems for sound-and-light shows in his basement. He landed contracts for Manhattan’s Hayden Planetarium, the Four Seasons, and the Museum of the City of New York
While still in high school, he was asked to automate the Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve
Before graduation, he was earning $60,000 a year
His father, Jack Kamen, died in August 2008. He was a comic book artist. His work appeared in Brenda Starr, EC Comics, Mad Magazine
DEKA is working on a variation of the Stirling engine. The Stirling was invented in 1816 by Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling. Alternately heating and cooling gases in a closed system creates power to do work, such as drive a piston
A DEKA Stirling engine in Bangladesh created electricity for 24 weeks using cow dung for fuel