The actor who played Q on three different Star Trek series says today's technology, whether it's cell phones or Second Life, is feeding off the fictional technology dreamed up by science fiction writers years ago.
John de Lancie, who played an onmipotent being in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager, gave the keynote address at the InfoSec World Conference in Orlando on Tuesday. Science fiction writers and today's high-tech innovators have some key common traits: curiosity and a sense of exploration, he said in an interview with InformationWeek after the keynote.
And de Lancie said real-life developers can use sci-fi's inspiration to help them build technologies that will make people healthier and make their lives easier and more productive.
"Science fiction is a place where people can talk about things," said de Lancie, who added that he's been a Mac owner since 1986. If f there was a fire in his house, he said the first thing he'd save is his Apple laptop. "Writers sit down and, say, come up with a way to get from one place to another. What tool is it that they need? And then they invent a tool that does not yet live in the physical world. Then people who work in the physical world can say, 'That's a great idea and we know how to do that.' "
A lot of the kids who grew up watching science fiction movies and television series, like Star Trek, went on to become today's IT professionals, de Lancie noted. He said he was hooked when he first read Jules Verne's Mysterious Island. As a child with dyslexia, he said he didn't learn to read until he was about 12 and the book was an opening for him into the world of reading -- and also into the world of science fiction.
"I began reading more books and they all seemed to be the same sort of guys," he said. "They knew things and they knew how to use things and they made things better for themselves." That, he added, sounds an awful lot like high-tech professionals.
"Technologists have the tools to make it happen," said the man who doesn't think he'll live long enough to really see artificial intelligence and robots take off. "What's amazing is they are the ones who can put this all together. That's science fiction becoming science fact. It invites people to think outside the box and be bold and fearless and be explorers and get to the other side. What's exciting is the desire to explore."
Star Trek's cult hero William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in the first series and several movies, has been outspoken in his belief that Star Trek exerted a strong influence on technology over the past 35 years. He talks about Star Trek's communicators being the ancestor of the flip cell phone, for instance. He even wrote a book, I'm Working on That: A Trek From Science Fiction To Science Fact."
De Lancie says the Second Life virtual world phenomenon looks an awful lot like the Enterprise's holodeck, where crew members could enter and actively participate with other people and creatures in fanciful virtual worlds. Similarly, Second Life is an open-ended 3-D virtual world that provides an online society where users can create and sell things, socialize, and participate in group activities.
While de Lancie said Second Life is an interesting development, he's far more excited about technology that will make people healthier or make their lives better. "What interests me is less of its gaming capabilities and more that they are using a version of that technology to get people to, say, relax when they're afraid to fly," he added. "They're using it in psychiatric hospitals to create an environment you're most fearful of in a safe and controlled away. That's where I go, 'Oh, that's just fantastic.' "
What de Lancie really wants, though, is for technologists to speed up their work on voice recognition, so he doesn't have to flip through channels to find his favorite TV show.
"It will truly free us up. It will be the next layer that will just make things easier," he said. "I wouldn't have to look at all the damn buttons when I change the channel on my television. I could sit down with a drink and say, 'Show me the last episode of Rome,' and it would just do it, instead of me screwing around trying to figure it out. I don't see any advantage of being good at dealing with the remote. Or I could get into a car and say, 'Take me to Paramount.' There is some fun in driving, but driving in traffic is not fun. That would be helpful."
The one tool or gadget that the Star Trek characters used that would provide the greatest benefit in the real world, de Lancie said, is the hand-held device that scanned people's bodies and quickly diagnosed what was wrong with them. "It was right each time," he said. "That would be great, obviously. Of course, I'd also like to beam back and forth so I could skip L.A. traffic."
But he was quick to add that not everything about Star Trek's fictional advances were a real plus. "I have to say, though, that I never saw them have a really good meal," he said laughing. "And I hated the colors. It all looked like a Holiday Inn. It looked like everyone was living in a hotel somewhere eating bad hotel food. There are a lot of things that are really wonderful the way we have them and that don't need to be changed."