Robert K. Weiss has had an interesting career and has more geek cred than you can possibly imagine. For many years, he worked in Hollywood as a writer on Sliders, directed many of Al Yankovic’s videos and projects and was a producer of many movies, including The Blues Brothers, Tommy Boy, The Kentucky Fried Movie and television shows like Police Squad and Weird Science. He’s even acted in a few. These days, he’s Vice Chairman and President of the X Prize Foundation. An unabashed geek, Bob sat down with GeekDad during the FIRST World Championships to talk about the importance of STEM education, kids and developing the next generation of engineers.
GeekDad: X Prize has sponsorship of a lot of things, but some pretty good programs for kids, too, with this [FIRST] and the FLL Global Innovation Award this year, and MoonBots. What ‘s the importance of sponsoring these competitions and learning experiences for kids?
Robert K. Weiss: At X Prize, we have an expression, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” Kids are the future, for example, these are the winners of future X Prizes, they are the engineers of the future. So it is important to us, for all our competitions, to have a series of components that kids of all ages can participate in. So, for example, we had our auto prize that was won in September of last year, that was a $10 million prize for hyper-efficient vehicles, that was accompanied by a high school competition to design the dashboard of the future, something called Dash Plus.
And so we try to have these complementary competitions to interest kids in what it is we’re trying to accomplish, to let them actually play a role, to be able to galvanize their activity around a competition, and our association with FIRST is multi-level.
Dean Kaman is one of our trustees, he’s on our board and we have done things in the past. MoonBots was a formalization of it, the Google Lunar X Prize competition. So for us to be able to stimulate the interest of kids is really important. In fact, there are two main reasons we’re doing that lunar prize. One, is to return to the moon and lower the cost of extra-planetary exploration, secondly, it’s to re-kindle interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
When I grew up, there was the Mercury program, the Gemini program, the Apollo program. And if you were interested in technology and engineering, there was something real life and big that was happening, and there isn’t really that kind of thing now. So, the founders of Google, one of the main reasons for backing that prize, was to be able to have something that it is a real-world happening example that could create focus and stimulate interest. We try to do this with every competition and do it more than just kind of an add-on, something that’s really an integral part of the activity. The Global Innovation program that we’re involved with, again, this is an assistance to kids, really bright kids, who have real accomplishment, and have patentable innovation. So, this is helping them bring their things to life. We are all about leverage, so this is a leverage model for them, to take advantage. So, kids are central to what we do.
I would also say that, of course, our competitions involve kids of all ages. We’re not very strict about defining who’s a kid. For example, in our auto competition, we had high school teams competing against university teams, competing against corporate teams – on the same playing field. This is one of the cool things about an X Prize, it gives a chance to bring people who would otherwise not come to the party. The fact that there’s a competition to galvanize interest and to give an open playing field to those, really made a difference. We had a team at Auto Prize from a high school in West Philadelphia. They didn’t win, but their vehicle got 87 miles per gallon energy equivalent, which is huge, and they had other innovations they brought. I think they were recognized by the President and so forth. They play at all levels.
Our whole thing is we make the impossible possible. Too often in our culture, we’ve become risk averse. There’s a focus on what we can’t do and all the negative stuff. If you think something can’t be done, that’s going to be the outcome. But imagine if you are unbridled by that constraint. Then you can get some really amazing orthogonal thinking.
It’s really cool to watch teams that are mixes of kids and adults, and academia and corporate, this kind of inter-disciplinary thing, it’s really exciting.
GD: X Prize is really good about rewarding technological innovation. Do more people and companies need to mimic X Prize and encourage this type of innovation? How do you feel about the future?
RKW: I would love for as many kids to be interested in what FIRST is doing as the number of people who watched that Friday video. It’s not that everyone is going to be converted or this is going to be everybody’s thing, but it should be available to more people. I think it is recognized in all quarters, even the President says, “the way to win the future is through innovation.” King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia says, “Next to God, science is the answer.” We are not going to cost-cut our way to innovation. We need to inspire youth to be the engineers of the future. When I was growing up, there was the space program, but there was nothing like this to galvanize interest and when you see how kids are involved here [at FIRST Championships], and their families, I am blown away. This is so inspiring. When I go spreading the X Prize DNA, the geeks in the audience (and I am proud to be one of them) will get it right away. There’s also a huge component of folks who, when they see it presented, they also get it, and that it has a impact that affects their lives. They can start to put the pieces together.
A fun experience, I spoke at my kids’ school in Los Angeles. One of my main points was for the kids to celebrate their differences. Geeks, and I use that term very affectionately, have gotten a lot of play lately; for a long time we were the outsiders. I showed them my high school yearbook picture and underneath it listed my activities: Advanced Physics Squad and Bionics Club. I told them, “I’ve been a geek for a long time and I salute each and every one of you.” And there was an immediate wave of applause from every geek in the audience — and not just the students, but the teachers too. And then five seconds later there was a second bigger wave, which was an acknowledgment from the bigger student body, and everybody “got it” together. So what’s really needed is this kind of forum where what’s stimulating and interesting to us, is also made interesting to the general population – of kids and the general public.
GD: You have these organizations like X Prize, like FIRST, out there drumming up interest. Everyone admits it’s a steep hill. Should the private sector be doing more than the schools? What’s the answer to getting us going faster?
RKW: It’s got to be a multi-front war. And it really is a battle to be won because there are forces against it, starting with inertia, and then there are various vested interests. The X Prize is a platform where public and private money come together to accomplish something that doesn’t happen otherwise. We actually combine money from philanthropic donors, corporate money, and government money, all toward a common cause. We need to find more ways to do it. All these sponsors say we need to do this, but they haven’t had the channel to be able to do it. That’s why we support and are proud to be partners with FIRST, and things like it. We are looking to build relationships and for them to be palatable to the general public.
When we design a prize, we ask ourselves a few questions. We start with what’s the right intersection of audacity and attainability? We want these things to be bold and really hard, but ultimately we want them to be attainable. And we’re happy. We want to give away the money because it means we’ve accomplished something really great.
Another question we ask is, could a family having dinner together understand this prize? And not “can the parents explain it to the kids?” but it’s the other way — could the kids explain this to the parents and draw their parents in? We find that’s the kind of appeal we have. It’s amazing to see the energy of the kids – and their families. And to have this kind of energy and passion that one normally only sees at athletic events – is mind-blowing.
GD: X Prize has developed the Dash Plus prize, and you have Moonbots, too. Is there a plan to reach out across other segments of the X Prize to create programs for kids and families?
RKW: Yes, we will try to do this in each and every case. We have another prize that’s around the full human genome sequencing, rapid low-cost sequencing. And so we’re looking to build programs that make sense at every level. So, for example, middle and high-schoolers can separate DNA and can do experiments at their kitchen table. We won’t get every kid interested in electrophoresis, but there are things to do.
You’d be surprised at what appeals to kids. I recently made videos of all our competitions. I showed them to my daughter and her friends, who are thirteen, which is the toughest audience in the world. I showed them a video for the Archon Genomics X Prize, Google Lunar X Prize, the Progressive Automotive X Prize and which do you think appealed to them? It was the opposite of what I guessed. They liked the genomics video. The genomics video has the fuzziest finish line of all three videos. It’s basically something that happens in a laboratory. But what they got, viscerally, is what the impact would be on the future of personalized medicine. In matters of life and death, they understand how this can impact their own lives.
Things like FIRST and X Prize offer a vision and hope. It’s not just talk or an idea – it’s a practical demonstration. It’s not an award that recognizes past achievement – we look forward and try to incent these very things. In the future, I think we’ll have central competitions that are built around kids’ participation. Just this morning, I was talking to Lego about building on our relationship and we agreed that kids should be at the heart of what we’re doing, not just an extension.
GD: It’s difficult to sit in a classroom and be lectured to about trigonometry or a similar subject, but when you sit down kids in front of a kit, when you give kids a tangible project to complete, they get it. They understand why it’s important to learn math, chemistry, biology. So MoonBots, the Global Innovation Award, Dash Plus, FIRST, give kids the opportunity to “get” practical application.
RKW: That’s exactly right. It’s a way to integrate the knowledge, they’re all taught as separate subjects. In school, kids go from silo to silo and where’s the course that integrates the biology and physics and history? We can talk about what’s wrong with education and what can you really do about it? For us, it’s a big systemic problem but you can get at it other ways, with extra curricular projects or adjunct programs, things like FIRST. Our hope at the X Prize is that we can reach this critical threshold. During this recession, this is exactly when we can use the vision, the hope, the leverage. That’s why it’s fun for me to go to work. Every day we think about what is a more positive future and how can we create it. The things we do at X Prize change people’s lives forever.