Comics have always been a vehicle for both social commentary and technological ambition — the list of real-life tech that first appeared in comic books is long, and includes technologies like smartwatches and drones. Yesterday at San Diego Comic-Con, entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen (son of EC Comics illustrator Jack Kamen) and Qualcomm Technologies’ own Matt Grob, executive vice president and CTO participated in a panel examining the intersection of science and science fiction.
Prior to the panel, the two innovators talked to us about how comic books can catalyze kids’ interest in STEM, and how famous comic book gadgets sometimes come to life and change the way we communicate.
Have you always been interested in comic books and science fiction?
Matt Grob: I read comics as a kid but I have always been into all kinds of sci-fi. My name spelled backwards is even “borg.” And since I started at Qualcomm, Paul Jacobs has always called me Locutus. I was born in Switzerland and we moved to the U.S. when I was seven years old. One of my first memories in the U.S. was in a hotel and Star Trek, the animated series, was on TV and I just loved it. I’ve always loved sci-fi. I love The Six Million Dollar Man, Lost in Space, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica.
Dean Kamen: I grew up around comics. It’s what kept bread on the table. My father was an illustrator for Shock Illustrated, Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, Tales from the Crypt, and Ray Bradbury. He was the first art director for a children’s illustrated encyclopedia. He lived and breathed illustrating comic books in the early, early days. I never outgrew them, though, and if you walk the halls at DEKA Research & Development, every wall is covered with the original artwork that my father did, many of which he did before I was born.
Have your sci-fi interests influenced your professional work?
MG: They absolutely influenced my career at Qualcomm. I went to see Star Wars in ‘77, and R2-D2 made me a big fan of robotics. I ended up building lots of robots, which I still like to do. When it came time to try to get a job after graduating college, I used some of the stuff I’d built in my interviews, and it helped me get my job at Qualcomm. Months later, people told me, “Oh yeah, you had that robotics stuff. That was cool.”
DK: Yes, when Matt and I spoke about the theme of our talk, I told him what I’ve been telling kids for more than 25 years: “You tell me you don’t like math and science.” Kids will cheer at that. But then I say, “Well, you like Star Wars and Star Trek, and you like every kind of science fiction, but you just don’t like science? Science fiction is exciting, and math and science are hard, right?” Then I look at the kids and say, “You know what the difference is between science and science fiction? Timing, and nothing else.”
How does science fiction continue to inspire your work?
MG: Sci-fi helps me think about what’s coming next. For example, we’re working on communication technology, and there are so many things from Star Trek that were once science fiction and are now science fact. The Communicator is the obvious one, and it even looks like a flip phone. Then in the movie from 1979, Captain Kirk had a wearable device that looks a lot like the smartwatches we have today. We’re always thinking of these kind of things and see how we can bring them to life. There are so many instances in science fiction where a technology or gadget can help save the day. There’s no doubt that they inspire us. As Dean says, the major difference between science fiction and science fact is time. We’ll eventually be able to do all of these things.
DK: I think every story we’ve ever seen has to have a problem to be solved or a villain to be conquered—there has to be some kind of conflict. Science fiction does two things: It presents the conflict, whether it’s the bad guy, an asteroid that’s about to hit the earth, or some other apocalyptic event that’s about to occur. Then it also has to give the science-fiction solution — it has to come up with the great new antidote to that villain or that event, like the ray gun or new technology that will save the world. I hope each generation will turn whatever is great about that science-fiction solution into reality, science, and engineering.
As an inventor, how do you balance creativity with practicality?
DK: That’s both the frustration and the challenge. I used to talk to my father about that. All he had to do was take that abstract idea — with the incredible talent he had — and put it on a two-dimensional surface symbolically, and then describe it with words in those little clouds. Real science is bounded by a set of rules. Not a lot of rules — Newton’s laws, Maxwell’s equations, the first and second laws of thermodynamics. There are only about a dozen rules, but they’re unforgiving. If you go beyond those rules, you fail, and you have to pick yourself up and try again. But I think those rules are so elegant—that the laws of nature are so beautiful — that it makes it fun to live with those constraints while making science fiction into science.
Are there any technologies from science fiction that will soon be science fact?
MG: Science fiction gives us a window into some of the possibilities. I recently went with Paul Jacobs to visit a company called THE VOID, which stands for the “Vision of Infinite Dimensions.” They’ve built an arena with a wearable device, so you’re in a virtual world built over a physical environment. When you go into an elevator, for example, the floor will shake. When the elevator door opens, you’ll feel a real breeze. Then you can put your foot on a ledge and there’s a real ledge there. Those things are like a Holodeck or The Matrix.
DK: One generation after we saw the Tricorder being used on every episode of Star Trek, we have the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition that’s sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation. The science fiction from that TV show is going to be turned into modern medical technology.
And a key part of sci-fi is connectivity and communication. For the first time ever, we have kids all over the world who are networked to each other and are communicating and cooperating with each other. We call this ‘coopertition.’ I think coopertition on a global scale could create for the first time in human history a generation of kids that have different locations and backgrounds, but know how to communicate and cooperate. Maybe, for the first time ever, that breaks the cycle by which they each learn from the history of their parents about why they’re different, why they can’t trust each other, and why they should go to war with each other.
Pick a superpower.
DK: Time travel. Definitely.
MG: Iron Man is my favorite superhero, but he doesn’t actually have superpowers. Inside he’s a human. Somehow he survives getting smashed and thrown around, but he’s not like Superman. So I’d like to have the gadgets of Iron Man and the mind of Mr. Spock. In fact, one of my favorite moments is when Mr. Spock — who’s half Vulcan — met with Commander Data, who is the Android. So you have Spock, who’s trying to purge all emotions and be logical like a machine. Then you have Data, who is a machine and would love to have the emotions. It was wonderful when those two met.