The ubiq­ui­tous pop star is out to con­quer Sil­i­con Val­ley.

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

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.

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 pub­lic­i­ty­seek­ing 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. ■

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