CES 2008: Segway inventor and Xena rock DVICE's panel about sci-fi's influence on tech


DVICE hosted a panel here at CES this afternoon. We had an impressive line up: Dean Kamen the renowned inventor who created the Segway, Lucy Lawless of Xena, Warrior Princess fame (above, with Kamen), and more recently a Cylon on Battlestar Galactica, Walt Mossberg, tech columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and the Science Fiction author Neal Stephenson, Author of Snow Crash. The subject was Science Fiction's influence on Technology, and vice versa and topics included helicopters, jet packs, Robert Heinlein, and the threat of biotechnology.

The panel was moderated by SCI FI Channel Executive Vice President and General Manager Dave Howe. We’ve got a rundown of the conversation after the jump.


The panel started with each member talking about his or her most important science fiction influence.

Kamen begins by saying that science is more interesting than science fiction. The surprising things that you find in real science are more exciting than the "other stuff." He says that he's here because today most kids find science difficult, boring, and esoteric. So he's hoping that science fiction will be a valuable tool that gets people interested in real science.

Lawless says that her favorite SF influence was Dr. Who.

Stephenson's read all the great SF novels, but his biggest influence was Robert Heinlein.

Mossberg loved Asimov, H.G. Wells, and especially Heinlein. "I have to say that StarTrek had a huge influence on me, including the Next Generation series, where they had enough money to hire some good actors and have better special effects." Today, he watches Battlestar Galactica: it's very different from StarTrek, but they both deal with human, social issues and just happen to be set in space.

How influential has the Sci Fi genre been on the technology that we see here at CES? Mossberg says "I absolutely think you can trace directly what inspired the engineers to make gadgets to Science Fiction." He gives the example of the StarTak flip phone.

Kamen: The only difference between science fiction and science is timing. Every generation imagines something that they really want to do: if they can't do it, then they write about it. It's amazing how much of what we do today is really just last generation science fiction. Jules Verne "made" a submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that had plants growing in it to create oxygen. But he didn't predict the light bulb.

Lawless "takes" a phone call as her Cylon BSG character. She uses the word "frak" and Airlock!

The first screenshots of the Amazon Kindle were of Stephenson's Diamond Age. Stephenson complains that if an engineer rips off a Sci Fi idea, the author doesn't get royalties. He says that Sci Fi inspires engineers to see the big picture.

Mossberg uses the example of multi-touch on the iPhone and Minority Report. "Nobody can tell me that the engineers weren't influenced by the movie." He also mentions that the movie was probably influenced by real scientific research.

Lawless: are we so busy making things from Sci Fi that we aren't paying attention to making great science for simpler, more boring things like water filters?

Mossberg: Where's my jetpack? All those things on the cover of Popular Science in 1940s have been invented, but they never caught on.

Is Kamen working on a jet pack? No, instead he talks about his helicopter obsession. He has a heleport near his house, which is influenced by a Life magazine illustration of a father coming home from work to his family in a helecopter. He's more interested in hovering than in speed.

Mossberg: In the 1940s Popular Science kept predicting that helicopters would replace cars. Hovercraft is another example of technology that exists but doesn't seem like it will catch on. Plus, it took the Internet and personal computer to make the videophone catch on. AT&T showed that idea years ago.

Kamen: Radio is still more popular than television: we can drive while we do it, we can work while we do it…phone answering machines were invented so that you never miss a call. It's been used for the opposite purpose.

Mossberg: Inventors don't foresee the actual use of their products. Bell was once quoted as saying that the telephone would be good to bring opera to small towns. An inventor of the television thought that it would be useful to go into mines and show what's going on there. In science fiction, unless you're writing a story about unintended consequences you get to say this is what was invented, and this is what you use it for.

Howe: nobody really knew what the Internet was going to be used for. Sci Fi has been very good at predicting the destructive power of technology. How optimistic are you about how technology can help humanity?

Lawless: is it possible that the Internet can become self-conscious?
Mossberg: I would assume no, but I don't think you can rule it out.

Kamen: All technologies are used for both good and evil. Technology is an amplifier: a bulldozer amplifies your physical strength, a computer amplifies your analytic strength. Tech allows us to do good and bad better. The problem today is things move very quickly and we can't understand the unintended consequences as quickly as we used to. The technology/catastrophe race.

What should be concerned about/regulate? Stephenson is most worried about bio-terrorism and bio warfare. But there are so many labs out there using this equipment that it would be imposable to regulate The only thing we can do is to have defensive measures in place.

Mossberg agrees about biotech in general. A virus or pathogen could be generated on a MacBook Pro in some cave in Afghanistan, but in general, well meaning people can do research that comes up with something really bad.

Kamen: genomics should be the poster child for unintended consequences coming very quickly. Imagine somebody alone being able to make something in vials and using it to take out all of our food supply. A really bad flu with today's transportation would take out a third of the world's population: 2 billion people.

Howe: what are the downsides of technology in terms of humans and family?

Lawless: I'm not concerned. The other day it was raining and the kids had been inside for two days. They're being monstrous despite the wii and all the electronics in the house. I just booted them out in the rain. They had a great experience. Better than inside.

Kamen: kids use technology as infrastructure. Kids don't have to understand or question it. The kids don't even really know what it is, just like when you were little you didn't wonder how a toilet worked, you just used it. Kids cant tell the difference between science and pseudoscience. A dig in here at "intelligent design:" you don't put Newton's second law and the spaghetti monster on the same plane.

Stephenson: One of the rules that good things that SF can do is to blow up an idea to the point where it's spectacularly terrifying.

Mossberg: There's this romantic notion now in science fiction and real fiction of trying to get off the grid. We all know of situations where people are IMing each other in the next cubicle instead of talking, I think there's going to be a backlash against it, there may already be one.

Kamen talks about a program of his where kids make a robot with adults: it's actually more about human interaction than technology.

That's it! Check back on the site later for an interview with Kamen and Lawless, and for video clips from the panel itself.