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STEM evangelist creating more creators

John Cohn

IBM Fellow Emeritus and

Distinguished Agitator

IBM Fellow Emeritus and Distinguished Agitator John Cohn has had many successes over his 40-year career, including 123 worldwide patents to date. A self-described Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing hippie, Cohn was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest honor awarded to an engineer, “for improving design productivity of high-performance analog and mixed-signal circuits and for evangelizing STEM education.” One thing he has not yet succeeded at, however, is total retirement.

Tell me a little about your career journey

I joined IBM more than 40 years ago, starting out in analog chip design. Then every three years or so I would get that itch to move into a different, related area. It’s not that all the problems in chip design had been solved, but I realized that after a while I kept coming up with the same ideas, and it was time to move on to a new challenge.

From analog chip design I moved on to work on the software people used to design analog circuits. As chips got faster, I began working on design automation for high-performance digital, designing digital circuits, then onto chip methodologies. After I became a Fellow, I became more interested in how chips like the ones we made were being used in the world and began to focus on the Internet of Things (IoT). I knew a lot about chips at that point, and I felt like I could contribute to the knowledge that was growing in that field. It was while doing IoT that I fell in love with artificial intelligence (AI). When you can embed AI into a small chip, you can put smarts into virtually anything — like a washing machine, for example.

Your NAE award is, in part, for “evangelizing STEM education.” What does that mean?

I began doing STEM promotion when we started having kids. I wasn’t into playing sports, but my kids and their friends loved blowing things up with me. When our 14-year-old son Sam died in 2006 … that was a total reboot. Nothing made sense. It was really, really difficult. But what I found was that when I would give back by visiting schools as the crazy science professor, creating fun science videos or participating in reality TV — e.g., “The Colony,” a Discovery Channel show in which cast members used their ingenuity to survive in an environment that simulated life after the collapse of civilization — I found that it made me feel good again. It helped make life make sense to me again.

What I learned was that the more STEM outreach I did, the more dividends it paid. Just like in my day job at IBM, it gave me joy to bring people together around ideas.

I found that if I could bring like-minded people together, people with all kinds of different skills, I could solve problems I could never solve on my own and motivate others to do the same. I found there was a kind of cool virtuous cycle about this. Making things with people gives me stuff to talk about to convince other people to make things with people. It becomes a self-sustaining, growing kind of thing. It’s kind of an intellectual pyramid scheme.

What is the strangest place you’ve had a flash of insight?

One thing about creativity is we tend to do it in a hyper-egoic way. Like most creative people, I take a great deal of pride in my work. One of the things that does to us is it makes us so clenched up about asking for help. You may have something really, really hard to do, but you’ve been taught that asking for help is a sign of weakness.

On that reality show, we were trying to make a wood-powered generator, and I was trying to turn a car over to get at the alternator. I was going to try and do it on my own with a chain, when one of my colleagues came over and said, “Professor, you (bleep).” And he whistled and a few other colleagues came, and the five of us just turned the car over, easy as anything. I think about that moment and about the idea that asking for help is a sign of weakness, when actually it’s a sign of intelligence.

You retired from IBM in 2021, but retirement doesn’t seem to have taken. What happened?

I did retire, but I missed the work I was doing with the MIT Research Lab, working with students in a collaborative industrial-academic laboratory charting the future of AI. So, I’m back doing that one day a week.

At the same time, some good friends of mine got involved with a startup, BETA Technologies, right near my hometown of Burlington, Vermont. It’s a small company, just 370 employees, that designs electrical, vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL). BETA’s plane, named ‘ALIA,’ is a perfect example of using technology to solve a big issue. Commercial air traffic is a large source of carbon pollution. BETA’s goal is to electrify the last 200 miles of the supply chain via short-range electric planes. Doing that can dramatically reduce the amount of carbon generated in getting goods from point A to point B.

What’s your role with BETA?

I started out making interactive demonstrations that explain the amazing science behind building an electric airplane. Building an eVTOL from scratch takes an amazing number of innovations in battery systems, motor design, electronics and software.

The audience for our demos originally was students. From there, we began doing demonstrations for potential investors, and for potential pilots. The audience for these demos just keeps growing.

Our demos generally take parts of the real planes — the batteries, the motors, the control systems — and put them in a form that a student, potential employee or investor can experiment with her- or himself. It goes right back to my love of being a technology education evangelist. I know we need to get as many people as possible interested in problem-solving technologies, and the best way to get them interested is to wow them, so they lean in and want to learn more. That’s how we’ll create more creators.

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