The Ingredients of Invention: Resilience, Ideas and Passion

To round out the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors interviews conducted in Washington D.C. during the AAAS Annual Meeting, we spoke to three additional Ambassadors over the phone: including Juan Gilbert.  We spoke to the Ambassadors about the importance of invention, the impact of their work, and what it has been like to be an Invention Ambassador. In this blog we recap Juan’s reflections on why invention is critical and the characteristics of an inventor. 

Juan Gilbert 

In invention you need to be a divergent thinker, you need to think about the impossible, because that’s how we can fix problems.

Dr Juan Gilbert is the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and Chairman of the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department at the University of Florida. A 2015 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador, he strives to invent to increase equality and create positive impacts for society as a whole. Dr Gilbert focuses on systemic problems such as voting, or helping achieve and implement initiatives like affirmative action.

Why is invention so essential to society?

The world needs invention because we have a lot of problems that need solving; climate change, elections, disease. There’s a need for invention to solve global and societal problems. That’s simply it.

What drives me, personally, to invent is this idea of helping society; being able to make a contribution to make society better, and being able to fix problems. It gives me a rush to be able to a solution to a challenge, and particularly if it has impacts on society.

How has your inventions helped solve problems?

One of my inventions, Prime III, focuses around voting. We’ve created accessible voting technology that has never been hacked and allows everyone to vote on the same machine, regardless of any disability that someone may have. If you can’t see, can’t hear, can’t read, don’t have arms, you can still vote on the same machine as anyone else. My motivating factor for this technology was moving society along, making things easier for everyone. The idea came about because during the 2000 US Presidential election, there was such a controversy, here in the state of Florida, around who had won, that I realized something needed to change. My team had the expertise to address this, so we used that knowledge to invent a technology that can help move us forward in voting.

What is the best way to distribute an invention?

I have both a patent and a licence for my invention Application Quest. I have a patent for the algorithm and I have licenses to a third party. In my opinion, you should always have a patent to protect your intellectual property. Then you can decide what makes the most sense, licensing or creating your own company.

Having said that, for Prime III, we actually made it open source instead of patenting or licensing because we wanted it to be publically available and used. We simply created it, tested it, demonstrated it, and put it out there for all to use, and now it’s publicly owned. Election Systems & Software (ES&S) is the nation’s largest voting machine manufacturer. They have used our technology to create an innovative voting machine called the ExpressVote. So our invention is changing how elections are done in the United States right now.

What do you need to be a successful inventor?

There are several factors to being an inventor. The first factor is not so much a skill but more of a trait. If you’re going to be an inventor, you’ve got to understand you’re going to have failures, and you need to be able to overcome that. Therefore, being resilient against failure is something you’ll need to be a successful inventor.

The next thing you need are ideas. You should try to be a divergent thinker. Basically, you need to see the world differently. However you need to understand that just because you see the world a certain way doesn’t mean everyone sees it that way, and that doesn’t mean your way of seeing is better than mine. It’s good to have different ideas.

Finally, the third factor you need is passion. You have to have passion for something. Whatever you’re pursuing or trying to address, you should have a passion for it. I think if you have these things you can develop the technical skills necessary to be successful. That’s the easy part, anybody and everybody can do that, but resilience, divergent thinking and passion is what will set you apart.

The Invention Ambassadors Program typically helps Ambassadors talk to policy makers, coming from a policy background, why do you believe that is important?

I think encouraging this dialogue is extremely important. Policy makers set the agenda for a lot of things in the country. So making sure you have educated policymakers is important because they need to understand the role and place that invention plays in the economy. They can guide invention from funding to regulation, so it’s important for policymakers to understand how it fits invention fits in the larger ecosystem of our country’s economy and individual prosperity.  

What was the best part of being an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador?

The Invention Ambassadors Program gave me an opportunity to meet other inventors and open my eyes to new ideas and different ways of thinking about the same thing. It helped create and solidify a network of inventors, an invaluable resource. Secondly, it allowed us to go and meet others, particularly young people, to tell our stories. By sharing our stories we were able to inspire these young minds. Talking to them, many didn’t realize invention was an option for them. It was extremely satisfying to be able to encourage people, and so important to create the next generation of inventors.

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