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Will.I.Am.

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Will.I.Am on Nikola Tesla, Mash-Up Culture, and His Love of Robots

Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to avoid Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am. Just this year he’s been a mentor on American Idol, named Intel’s director of creative innovation, and a voice actor on the Cleveland Show. Now he's teaming up with ABC to present I.am.FIRST: Science is Rock and Roll, an hour-long documentary/music concert special, celebrating the FIRST Championship, airing this Sunday. The twentieth annual robot-building competition features kids from kindergarten through twelfth grade from around the world, and is run by FIRST, an organization that seeks to get students interested in engineering and technology. Vulture recently got on the phone with the musician for a breathless, roundabout conversation touching on the special, Nikola Tesla, and eighties robot cartoons.

What’s the intention behind FIRST?
To inspire people to become inventors. To educate people and enable and give them tools to compete in the future. I realize that America can look really different twenty years from now. Twenty years from now, I’ll still be pretty young. Actually, I won’t be old at all. And it can be a totally different country in that time if we don’t prioritize and bring balance to our country. What’s the importance of having a football field at every high school? There’s a bigass football field at every single high school. You know how much money it costs to start a football team? That’s just for dudes. What about my sister? Guess what, yeah, they have cheerleaders and shit, but they don’t get paid that much money. You can’t have a career as a cheerleader. “I’m a Dallas Cowboy girl!” C’mon. and how long are you going to be a cheerleader. Are you going to be cheerleader at age 36? And I’m not hating on football, my uncle played professional football for the Falcons, and I dreamt of being a football player a long time ago. But what about the kids who like iPhones and iPads and Wiis and PlayStations and fire engines and airplanes and rockets and robots? Do they dare to dream to be an inventor or a scientist? Or a technologist? And if they do, does the school district reinforce that? Probably not. As if technology doesn’t make money. Actually, it does. So what’s up? There are certain things that just don’t make sense.

What got you so interested in education?
So here’s a little thing that’s messed up — that people probably don’t realize: I didn’t graduate college, yet I want to send kids to college. College doesn’t mean success. I know a lot of people who graduated with freaking master degrees who are sitting at home on a couch, tripping, wondering, “What am I doing with my life?” People are waiting for government to do it, but the government only makes government jobs. The people who make new jobs are people who imagine them. So you want to inspire people to go to college, not to get a job, but to create a job. Right? With new skill sets. If you have a new concept that doesn’t exist, you’re going to need math and science to bring it to life. Like whoever thought of Google needed to understand code and computer science. Whoever thought of touch-screen computing, whoever thought of that had to have some crazy-ass fucking skillery.

Have you always been interested in science?
No. Music, performing, that was my passion, but then I looked under the hood of our industry. People in our own industry don’t realize it’s sitting on top of technology. It’s all based on Nikola Tesla. Marconi tried to say he freaking started radio, but it was really Tesla. That guy was a scientist. It was always technology. Did the technologist know what to put on their hardware? Nope. So where did they go? They went to speakeasies where jazz was. Probably why the record industry has always been run by gangsters, because those clubs were all run by gangsters because they were selling illegal alcohol. Anyway, that’s a long story, but our industry has always been based on technology. So when I realized that, I was like, Wait a second here, is that why northern California, where Google, Facebook, Napster and all that stuff, is that why all the lawsuits are coming from southern California, because that technology is superior to the technology that we are running off of? For us to distribute music, we got to make the music in the studio, press it up, distribute it, and take it to the radio. Up there up north, it’s you make it on the computer, you send it on a computer, and people listen to it on a computer. There’s no middle man. It’s a superior system. It’s one to many. That’s why the marriage of technology and science is important, because it births new platforms and new industries. And the next marriage, the next intersection is the one we're about to see.

How has it influenced the Black Eyed Peas? There's definitely a clear sci-fi vibe going on at this point …
That was on purpose. Michael Jackson, think about when he did Thriller. He took cult, thrill films, and made it into a musical. Think about that? So, one day I was thinking, Dang, dude, I don’t want to do another cult film. Michael Jackson killed that one. There’s no way I can do it better than that. What’s a genre or something that I could use in music. Oooh, sci-fi! If I sing sci-fi pop, it’d be crazy! “Welcome, it’s the year 3008.” Future, future, future, future, future, future. The future that they dreamt of in the twenties, the thirties, and the forties — we already live in it. That’s the reason out of all the movies, the remake of The Smurfs, the remake of E.T., the remake of Planet of the Apes, everything’s remake, remake, remake, remake, remake, remake, remake, remake, remake. The one they cannot remake is the freaking Jetsons. Why? Because all the technology they had in that cartoon, except for the flying cars, already exists. We actually did it all, except for teleportation. “Beam me up. Scottie” — that ain’t here yet, but it will be here soon. But what’s the future? The new future? What does it look like? That’s why I’m on this, unh, unh, I want to dream it up so somebody can figure it out. Because what was once science fiction is now science fact. Robocop in the eighties? That’s real, I saw it at the TED convention. That used to be science fiction, there’s no way the human mind can control a robot prosthetic arm. Who's going to dream up the next stuff? Popular culture is exhausted. There are no new ideas. Now it’s mash-up season. Cowboys and, not Indians, but Aliens. What! What! I seen that movie, but instead of an Indian it’s an alien. So we have to start dreaming again. And when I see these kids who are a part of FIRST, they’re the dreamers. They’re the ones excited about new things to conquer.

What is it about robots, specifically, that appeals to you?
When I was a little kid, I loved M-M-M.A.S.K. and the Centurions and Transformers. I loved freaking Go-Bots. What else was there, dude? Voltron! I loved that stuff. Dang! What was the one with the lions? Oh Tranzor-Z, where the girl had, like, missile boobs. I loved all that stuff growing up as a kid. But it also gave us a concept that a robot looks human-esque. Well, that’s not the case. When NASA sent that rover to Mars, that was a robot. What fascinates me about robots is, of course, there’s the whole Terminator fear. That’s with anything as it grows, you know? I’m into the imagination and turning imagination into reality. That’s what has me all aghast and pumped. I can see creativity at work. Whatever it is, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. As long as it makes the world easier. As long as it make communities healthier. As long as it brings a commonality to people who have differences, that’s what I’m about. Like think about what we’re building; there are computers that, in the next five years, are able to fix themselves. I’m just imagining what is probably going to happen, it's going to know that its operating system is weak and it’s going to take time off to repair itself. “I’m fixing myself, don’t turn me on.” Right? Your smartphone is going to be smarter than you. Because people have smartphones and do dumb shit on it. What! Like the drinking app! Knowing that there ain’t no liquid in it, but motherfuckers got that drinking app and pretend they’re drinking. That’s some dumb shit on a smart-ass device. What happens when a computer has artificial intelligence in it, and it’s going to fix itself, but it knows you don’t want to it anymore? And you’re going to get a new one? That’s going to come. But it will probably be connected to some cloud and you’re going to be able to program your operating system specific to you and the things that you have. That’s what’s going to come, and after that, there’s going to be robots. But they’re not going to be like humans. Like your car, it’s dumb as shit. We can go buy something for $60,000 and it's dumber than what I bought for $100. My phone is smarter than my car. That’s dumb. I’m paying a mortgage on a house that’s stupid! My computer is smarter than my house! Think about all the stuff that has to catch up to speed in the then, three, four, five years. That’s where we are right now. And these kids that are 15, they’re excited about technology and they’re about to define the next stuff. And they’re watching government guys take pictures of their private parts and put it on Twitter. These kids are like, what’s going on here, I know what I’m doing at school, I’m doing robots, I’m writing code. I can hack your whole freaking system. They're looking at adults do dumb things with smart devices, meanwhile they are doing intelligent things with smart devices. That’s why I’m excited, because I’m seeing stuff on CNN, Bloomberg, BBC, I’m reading things on the internet, I’m seeing kids, this little underground movement called FIRST, I’m seeing these kids on some Einstein brainiac level, and they’re the ones that are going to make sense of it all. We weren’t born with it, so we’re trying to make it work in an old world, when these kids are going to grow up in a new world and make it work. That’s the flux. It’s old folks that grew up with black-and-white TVs and, you know, telefax. These kids have some other connectivity. Now we have — these guys are our soldiers of the future. We got to salute them. Ten hut! Thank you for your service, your mind, thank you for dedicating yourself to math, technology, engineering, and science. Ten hut! These are our kids. So, I’m doing all that I can. I didn’t have to do it. I could have just got that money and bought me Bugatti with some gold teeth. I should be on one of those freaking magazines talking about some girl I’m trying to get with. I should be on a boat, in the summertime right now. I should be — think about all the things stereotypically that I should be doing in the music industry as an entertainer. I should be stumbling outside of a club, TMZ, with cameras shoved down my nose. Right? Nah, not I. “Not I,” said … ”Not I,” said whatever that little quote was. I’m George Bush–ing it right now. Messing up quotes. All right, dude, I’ll see you.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage