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Ted Selker On Innovation

by Roberto V. Zicari on October 27, 2008

This time I had the pleasure to interview Ted Selker.

Dr. Ted Selker develops and tests new user experiences. He spent ten years as an associate professor at the MIT Media Laboratory where he ran the Context Aware Computing group, co-directed the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, and directed the Counter Design Intelligence: product design of the future project. His work is noted for creating demonstrations of a world in which human intentions are recognized and respected in complex domains, such as kitchens, cars, on phones, and in email. Ted’s work takes the form of prototyping concept products supported by cognitive science research.

Prior to joining the MIT faculty in November 1999, his work at IBM gained him the title of IBM Fellow where Ted directed the User Systems Ergonomics Research Lab. He has served as a consulting professor at Stanford University, worked at Xerox PARC and Atari Research Labs, and taught at Hampshire College, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Brown University.

Ted’s research has contributed to products ranging from notebook computers to operating systems. For example, his design of the TrackPoint in-keyboard pointing device and many of his other inventions are used in notebook computers, his visualizations have been responsible for performance and usability improvements in products, and his adaptive help system has been part of many IT products as well. Ted’s work has resulted in numerous awards, patents, and papers and has often been featured in the press. He was co-recipient of the Computer Science Policy Leader Award for Scientific American 50 in 2004, the American Association for People with Disabilities Thomas Paine Award for his work on voting technology in 2006 and the Telluride Tech fest award in 2008.

1. What is “Innovation” for you?
Innovation is presenting and solving problems in a novel way to changing the way things are done.

2. Who are your favorite innovators?
There are so many innovators and many in my life that I enjoy: Marvin Minsky who invented the confocal microscope, etc., John Mccarthy who invented time sharing and many elements of modern programming, Victor Scheinman who made some of the most successful industrial robots, Toshiuki Ikeda who made the Thinkpad happen, Larry Page and Sergay Brin who created the modern best company, Rob Barrett who invented the way that Atomic Force Microscop`s know where they are, etc., Will Wright who shows with every new game he makes such as Spore shows how vast exploring environments can be at least as compelling as the typical brutality video games of the past.

3. What do you consider are the most promising innovations of the last 3 years?
The theories that show that quantum dots could greatly reduce the bandgap problem in photovoltaics potentially bringing their efficiency over 80%. The new breed of Lithium phosphate batteries that can be recharged thousands of times. The LEDs that are among the most efficient lights ever made. The Flash memories that are large and cheep enough to replace disks and be faster and more efficient. Ubiquitous mobile devices with useful applications and capabilities. The WII game.

4. What does it help to become a successful innovator?
If you Fill your mind with problems, fill your mind with parts to solve problems, appreciate solutions, appreciate contributions from wherever they come, and need to make solutions happen you can become an innovator.

5. Is there a price to pay to be an innovator? Which one?
An innovator is often uncomfortable and making others uncomfortable.

6. What are the rewards to be an innovator?
Helping the world around you.

7. What are in your opinion the top 3 criteria for successful innovation?
A problem worth solving. A problem that can be solved. A problem that will have enough resources and authorization to allow itself to be solved by the people trying to innovate.

8. What would you recommend to young people who wish to pursue innovation?
Enjoy improving your ideas of how to solve problems with others. Enjoy getting people to allow you to solve problems.
Practice really following through solving problems.

9. In your opinion how can we create a culture that supports and sustains innovation?
I have a dream I call Excubate which supports early stage technology business development. I plan to support innovation while delaying commitment to specific parts of the solutions.

10. What do you think stops/slows down innovation?
Confusing your self esteem and ego with peoples acceptance of any specific innovative proposal.

10+1 .Do you think becoming an innovator can be taught? If yes, how?
Absolutely. I love to teach workshops on invention and innovation. Get people to have a habit of defining questions as part of problems they see. Get them to have habits of appreciating others ideas and improve on them. Get people to try out more than one idea, in their head, and in every other way the can: design on paper, build moch ups, build prototypes, get authorization to disementate.

10+2. What is in your opinion the influence that a “location” (country/region) plays with respect to the possibility to be a
successful innovator?

We are surrounded by the problems of where we are: the physical (my water is more expensive than my electric bill in California) the people (the people I know talk about other things than a leak in their plumbing) the tools (I have a milling machine in my shop, I have an osciliscope on my desk, I have a programming environment in my computer), the encouragement of others (my partner asks me to go down and sit at my desk)

10+3. What would you recommend to make a “location” attractive for innovation?
To make a location attractive, make it easy to come to, full of tools and people and other things that can make the ideas turn into working and used solutions.


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