will.i.am’s Digital Dreams

For the past few years, the Black Eyed Peas frontman, producer, and world-class weirdo has been working tirelessly to transform himself into an  in-demand tech mogul. The funny thing? It’s working.

Say what you will about will.i.am, but the man can keep his cool. It’s 95 degrees in Washington, D.C., a thick, tangible heat that entombs you as you walk. Yet he’s wearing  a black suit, a black shirt, and the kind of heat-retardant stoicism all great performers share, as he stands in front of the White House and waits to be interviewed by Martha MacCallum of Fox News. She’s asking will about the capital’s Maker Faire—the latest in a series of gatherings, started in 2006, where amateur scientists, artists, and other ambitious do-it-yourselfers display visionary projects they’ve designed and made, often using 3-D printers. Maker Faire festivals crop up all over the world, but this is the first one to be held at the White House, and it’s hosted by President Obama, who calls it “a revolution that can help us create new jobs and industries for decades to come.” And will.i.am is there to make an announcement.

No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the Black Eyed Peas, the hip-hop group he leads, which, having sold more than 31 million albums worldwide, is now on hiatus. Rather, it’s all about will’s next act. The seven-time Grammy winner has decided to hang up his sci-fi attire and taffy-legged dance moves and stage dive into the tech world. And he’s not just another celebrity show pony being paraded around to polish a company’s cool: He’s investing his own money and time into developing forward-thinking devices for his own company, i.am+, and others, as well. “I’m all in,” he says. “I’m betting on the future.” 

Skepticism might seem like the proper response to this claim. After all, the tech world has a decidedly spotty record when it comes to celebrity involvement. Remember when BlackBerry’s global creative director, Alicia Keys, dragged that flagging icon back into relevance? Or when Myspace’s new co-owner, Justin Timberlake, led the company’s triumphant return to mainstream dominance? Exactly. Fame doesn’t automatically translate into innovation or insight. But will is far more ambitious in his corporate dalliances: He’s director of creative innovation at Intel, chief creative officer at the manufacturing firm 3D Systems, a collaborator on Coca-Cola’s recycling initiative, and a partner with FIRST, the nonprofit organization founded by Segway inventor and tech luminary Dean Kamen to stage robotics competitions for kids. But will.i.am isn’t some tech-world dilettante. “He’s really doing it right,” says Kamen. “The public thinks he’s just another entertainer saying how much he cares. But he walks the walk. I truly believe he’ll change the world.”

So make no mistake: the will.i.am braving D.C.’s summer heat is no publicity-seeking drone, swanning from conference room to conference call. He’s here pushing the Ekocycle Cube 3D printer, an idea he cooked up with Kamen and 3D Systems designers. 

But Fox News has misspelled the thing— “Eco-” instead of “Eko-”—and Coca-Cola’s marketing team is firing off urgent e-mails to please, please fix the typo. The name was will’s idea, a play on the words recycle and Coke, with the latter reversed. The Ekocycle Cube 3D is a consumer 3-D printer, a desktop-size unit that can spit out six-inch versions of nearly any design fed into it. Compared with similar printers, it’s cheap ($1,199) and simple enough to attract mainstream users with no prior experience. And it uses recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), which means each custom-made accessory it makes is composed partly of recycled bottles. “We have an opportunity to reconfigure the way the current world is structured,” will says. Coming from him, it doesn’t sound quite as pompous as it might from, say, Bono.

The interview is winding down. Fox News neglects to fix the typo, but will never breaks a sweat or strays from his main point: Consumer tech can transform America by creating new industries and more jobs. Noble as that sounds, it’s what will believes. And it’s what he’s convincing some of the wealthiest companies in the world to believe, too. 

The standard-issue tech-mogul creation myths, with wunderkinds vaulting from Ivy League schools to Silicon Valley prominence, don’t apply to the former William Adams. He was born in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles; his family was on welfare, and he took a bus across town to attend a magnet school in Pacific Palisades. He lived in the projects until, at 17, he was signed to rapper Eazy-E’s record label. The Black Eyed Peas came later, as did producer credits with everyone from Michael Jackson to U2, and Miley Cyrus to Talib Kweli. 

But when you think about it, the Peas were always future forward, fusing dance beats with pop hooks long before the EDM explosion. The group’s first two albums, full of earnest, socially conscious raps, didn’t sell well, so will revamped the sound and lineup, adding charismatic lead singer Fergie and creating Peas 2.0, a deliriously happy Top 40 group and global phenom. 

When you talk to will for a few minutes, you realize he’s a huge nerd. Always has been. Proof: He’s terrified of artificial intelligence. Specifically, he’s frightened that our ability to educate people is being outpaced by machine intelligence. “That should be everyone’s focus right now,” he says. “We are soon going to face the day when our devices are more intelligent than us.” 

He’s getting all Judgment Day because, in addition to his 3-D printing ventures and consulting, he’s created a device of his own: a smartwatch. It’s called the i.amPuls, and unlike many of the other wrist-based devices now flooding the market—most notably, one from a little tech firm out of Cupertino—this cuff can make and take calls itself, rather than simply pass along messages and information from a synced-up smartphone. In fact, it doesn’t require the user to have a smartphone on hand at all.

“Everyone else is looking at the smartwatch as something that sends you notifications,” he says. “They’re not thinking as big as we are.” 

It’s worth noting that will is talking to me from Australia on a prototype of the Puls. This is a few weeks after the White House event and some months before the watch’s November launch, and the sound is sharp. Even sharper: All the processing happens within the Puls, which runs apps like Facebook and Twitter. It has a 1.7-inch touchscreen with a bright, easy-to-read font, responds to voice commands, and operates on its own 3G network. It even features a Siri-like digital assistant that answers questions and helps streamline searches. And it’s built entirely by will’s in-house tech team. The same is true for the watch’s operating system, a new platform that’s a house-enhanced version of open source Android, complete with its own interface and developers’ kit. It pits him against the tech powerhouses. And that could be a big deal. 

It’s more evidence that will.i.am is not simply dabbling. He invested his own money into this venture, just as he poured cash into the i.am+ line of high-end iPhone accessories in 2012. Those weren’t a success by any stretch of the imagination, but they provided street cred—he’d made the effort, built a team of engineers, and gambled some of his wealth. 

Still, he bristles when asked why consumers should trust him. “A celebrity would partner with the company, take an advance, and provide a few ideas. And their ideas are all like”—his voice shifts to a whine—“‘Yeah, that’s cool. Yeah, I would rock that to the club.’ For me to be taken seriously, I had to earn it.” 

He earned his partnership with Coca-Cola, too, presenting the firm with his idea for a product-based recycling initiative in 2012. When April Crow, Coca-Cola’s director of sustainable packing, flew to L.A. for a follow-up, she wasn’t expecting to spend hours discussing the challenges of manufacturing with recycled plastic. “He had done his research; he asked the smartest questions,” says Crow. “I was blown away.” Will had pursued Coke, rather than the other way around, and he was advocating an initiative with profits that would go to sustainability-based charities. “That was what struck me,” says Crow. “He isn’t just about promoting himself. He really wants to be a part of this.”

If you believe will, it’s not about the immediate payoff. Between his music career and his early investment in Beats Audio—acquired by Apple in May of last year for $3 billion—he won’t run out of cash anytime soon. All these long plays are part of a circuitous, counterintuitive loop, landing back where he started: the inner city. He partnered with FIRST and wants to make 3-D printers mainstream because he believes science, tech, and math offer the surest routes to prosperity for kids from poor backgrounds. “It’s not just music, and it’s not just sports,” he says, noting that agents and talent scouts regularly visit ghettos to search for the next star singers or jocks. “How come they take kids seriously and tech waits?”

That’s a question Dean Kamen posed a few years back, and shortly after, he received a call from will. “I thought, Here’s another entertainer mad at me for saying kids need more realistic outlets,” Kamen explains. But will agreed with that sentiment and quickly surprised Kamen (a man not easily won over by star power) with his enthusiasm, intelligence, and generosity. Will volunteered his services, performed at FIRST events, used his celebrity to increase the charity’s presence, and pitched countless ideas. 

Will also started a FIRST robotics team at his old school in Boyle Heights. And he wants kids to use the Puls so they’ll see how transformative tech can be. “That’s why I’m so excited about this,” he says. “It’s a gateway, and I can’t wait until kids start learning to code on it.”

But is it optimism or pure hype? 

Can you really picture housing projects full of kids tapping away at their watches, writing apps, waiting for the first download and the first positive review, and whatever comes next, expanding the tech industry

with new waves of innovation? Well, will.i.am can. Which is why it might happen.