Wednesday, April 19, 2017

INTERVIEW: Steve Wozniak on Sci-Fi, Comic Books, and How Star Trek Shaped the Future

From co-founding Apple Computer in the '70s to his continued work in groundbreaking new technologies right up to the present day, Steve Wozniak is a pioneer in the field of personal computing. His current project, however, hopes to meld a love of science fact with the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, with this weekend's second annual Silicon Valley Comic Con.

Bringing together such diverse luminaries as astronaut Buzz Aldrin and NASA scientists to cast members from TV's The Walking Dead, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more, the three-day gathering in downtown San Jose hopes to showcase the ingenuity and diversity of geek culture via a showcase of colorful costumes, fan favorite productions, and scientific innovation.

I had the pleasure of chatting with the spritely and gregarious "Woz" during his recent swing through San Francisco, and we discussed his own roots in geek culture and what he hopes the Silicon Valley Comic Con will become in the future. Read on for some highlights of our conversation:

You came up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when science fiction was nowhere near as mainstream as it is now. What were the particular geek cultures that you identified with? 

I can pinpoint specific books, or movies or TV shows that I saw, and I just know that they were important to me. I don't know if they made me a geek as much as the fact that I was smart in math, and I was very shy. And other people - by the time I got to middle school, no other kids would talk to me. I couldn't speak their little small talk; social language just didn't get to me. So I was very much out of the social culture, wasn't like my choice, but I was bright in electronics, and I was building projects, and doing things that I knew nobody else was doing in school.

You didn't get these subjects in school. My projects were huge - nobody knew, but nobody cared. It wasn't like I got credit in terms of a grade, or popularity, or something written down. I just did it because I fell in love with technology, I fell in love with the fact that I could know something, and get from beginning to a result. I could have a goal, and I could start hooking wires together and end up reaching that goal even if it was far off, and I was very tiny, very young. Elementary school, I had huge projects, with hundreds of parts, that I look back and I can't believe the sorts of things I was doing back then. I just thought it was my fun thing, that I knew, I couldn't share with others.

To me, just the mere fact of saying, "I can make this fantasy concept into a reality," that's a step that a lot of people don't cross.

You know, it started with simple little kits where you follow the instructions to build it. Even my ham radio transmitter and receiver, but not that many people get a ham radio license at 10 years old, and get out there and use a Morse code key and all this stuff, and couldn't really share that with anybody in school. So I just felt like electronics is something I'm good at, and whatever you're good at, you value.

So at what point did you cross that Rubicon into...

...building something of my own idea that didn't exist? I'd go back to an early house-to-house intercom that myself and a couple of other electronics-minded kids in my neighborhood, we just ran a ton of telephone wire down the fences, walked down the fences, stapling them into place, hooking our rooms up so we had a little intercom. No parents ever talked to us about it, really knew what we had built. It was all on our own -- when you do something all on your own, it has a bigger meaning to you than anything else.

That was probably an early start, but also I thought science fair projects, and I created things that were not out of a book. I remember in 5th grade actually, before the house to house intercom, my dad had been teaching me about electron orbits and atoms, built a huge project with 92 lights for the possible electron orbits, and 92 switches for the possible elements, natural elements. You flip a switch, and the right lights would come on - it was a little bit trickier than just wires - had to have some relays, had to some logic in there, and some diodes because hydrogen has one electron orbit, helium has another, then adds on.

But then you get to lithium, and sometimes you lose ones that were on before. It doesn't just add a new electron each stage. That was a great project, and I understood it all. The important thing was I understood, and I went up this little staircase. Then, by sixth grade, I learned that you could build, you could make decision like where to make a move in Tic-Tac-Toe, with electrons.

So, science fiction became reality. 

Science fiction is more like, I grew up with Dick Tracy watches in the comics. Of course, superheroes can see through walls and fly, set off flaming bursts that take things out. All those things are starting to become reality. It takes many, many decades, a long time. But you realize, this is something, if we could do, has value. Seeing the imagination, seeing the science fiction -- “This would be really great if we could do it” --  it's that it’s sort of a motivation, an inspiration.

The real fantasy is taking the step, you started on a question, how did you take this step? A lot of it was deciding I loved what I was “good” at: designing computers. I told my father, I'm going to own a 4K computer someday. He said it costs as much as a house, and I was stunned. I answered back, I'm going to live in an apartment. In other words, this thing that was unreal, that you could never achieve, an impossible dream, just like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this impossible thing, I'm going to have one someday, somehow. And eventually, when it was possible, I could - I created one. But you know, the motivation, having the want is the important thing. It's much more important than even having the brains.

We're here talking about the Comic Con, what is it about comic culture that makes you want to associate yourself, and put your name on it loud and proud?

Comic culture is just like what you described - having things that meant things to you emotionally. “Wow, this is incredible,” and putting your mind in that sphere of, “Wow, wouldn't it be neat, that someday you're near enough to technology, you can make it real.” Look at Silicon Valley. Why was there no Comic Con? Comic Con has been in other cities, but not Silicon Valley. Why? We are the people who make fantasies real. We do take old science fiction, things we see in movies, and we do try to make them real and we succeed sometimes. We're all here in Silicon Valley, we should have that.

So I wanted to build not just a Comic Con with the popular culture, and a lot of the stars that meant a lot to us growing up with our science fiction lives, but also some scientists talking about the realities of where we are going, how we're going to achieve things that were only dreams. I mean, obviously in my life, we did land on the moon. That was one of those things. Now we're talking about Mars. We’ve got our space village [here], and NASA's gonna have some incredible presentations on a lot of the sciences involved in that journey.

This is the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the cast coming here. As someone who I'm assuming grew up with the original series of Star Trek, what was your thought when the Next Generation first started? Did you embrace it, or were you hesitant?

I was very hesitant. My kids went for it, but it was around a time in my life when I stopped watching television, as odd as that sounds. I had lots other things going on in my tech life, so I missed out on a lot of it, other than just seeing it; it was being played in my living room.

It was more part of your awareness, because your kids were watching.

Yeah, and Star Trek had done so much for me. I'm not sure I would've had the inspiration that I had to ever start Apple, and do all these technical things and I don't think I would've had the meaning in my life if I hadn't gone to Star Trek conventions when I was young, and had a car, and could drive to Southern California to attend them. I mean, that was...these were such important things to me, I want to duplicate that with the Comic Con, that other people can, who like that sort of thing, that experience is just worthwhile.

I'm going through The Next Generation series with my boys, my older two are 10 and 8, and what strikes me is how it's pointing them in this direction of not only engagement with science, but also morality.

And psychology.

Yeah, just - being a decent person, because when you look at the characters on that show, they're driven by decency. I think that's a powerful lesson to give to kids. And my 10-year-old was looking at my iPad the other day, and he said, ""We should call it a tricorder.""

(laughs) Yeah, we're gonna have the finalists for the 2.5 million dollar X-Prize award to build a tricorder. How many decades ago, we saw that on Star Trek, anyone that saw it thought that it'd be a neat device, but we don't have them, they don't exist. But some people in their technology, eventually spotted little breakthroughs by scientists: physics, and chemistry and saw the ways to actually make such a device.

Point it at your body, measure your health, so that's gonna be part of our show. We're also gonna have a lot of steam exhibits for young people going into technology, engineering fields, to interest them. We're going to have science fairs too, in our outside part. You know, our outside part is the one part of Silicon Valley Comic Con that is open to the public. The science march is going to be there. March for science.

This is the second year for the show. What would you like to see it blossom into in years and decades to come?

We don't talk about making it bigger, like in terms of more money, more tickets or anything like that. We only talk in terms of making it better among ourselves. We're privately held, and we just say, what would make this a great show that I'd love to go to? What kind of science exhibits can we have, how can we get the best of popular culture, and just be the best of this kind of show there is? And we're just going to keep working towards that.

We were talking about science fiction of the past, you mentioned how for a while you weren't watching a lot of TV and stuff, do you have a chance to engage with TV and movies today?

No, when shows like the Big Bang Theory, or Dancing with the Stars called me, I said, "What is it?" (laughs) I pick up a lot, of course, you know, reading. Especially internet resources about what's on people's minds, and what they're going to see, and saying about it.

Given the fact that you have played such an integral role in so much of our technological life, if people come to you for advice, what would you tell somebody, if they want to, not just succeed, but excel in this area?

I never really cared about excelling in an area, just enjoying doing it, having fun. That's what Comic Con is about. It brings up the element of all technology, even science fiction and where we might go. The thing is, there's a fun, there's an emotional value to, I just feel like, I want to be a part of this, I want to be with other friends. I want to go to a concert, and hear music with other people that like that music. I want to go and see stars from a TV show, that I want to be around other people that admire them and love them and get a chance to finally see them. That's an important part of life.

I grew up being inspired by those sort of things, like I said, going to Star Trek conventions, concerts in my life. I still do that as much as I can. Don't close yourself off to having fun. If you're worth something, it's very likely to come your way. Some kind of level of success. But that should never be your end goal. Like you mentioned before, some of these characters, like on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's all about being good people morality-wise, and my ethics have been extreme my whole life. I would never, ever do anything somebody could call me, "You're unethical" or "You're trying to make something off of me" or "You're trying to deceive me." No, that is so important to me, to be doing things for a good reason.

When you look at how artificial intelligence and things like that have progressed so rapidly, are we tampering with something that we might not understand?

Some people that know that the technological elements that build artificial intelligence, and can sort of visualize the future where it might go, we're trying to bring more people in shows like Comic Con, to be exposed to some of that early thinking, and let them come up with a little bit more of a basis to make their own opinions on. I don't buy into “All humanity is going to be ruled by artificial intelligence.”

The Matrix, kind of.

I don't buy into that. Maybe, a hundred years from now, but I won't be around, so I don't have to say. A human being learns over years. A machine can learn in half an hour how to play these games better so we think that's intelligence? But, they've never sat down and said, “What should I do? How do I teach myself to learn it?” They've never gotten to that stage, and we've never talked about building that machine yet, so our concept -- we don't know how the brain is wired. That's why artificial intelligence is kind of a farce. Kind of a joke. Someday we could break through. And then all the Stephen Hawkings of the world, and Elon Musks could be all totally right, because it's possible, but that breakthrough hasn't happened.

That chestnut, where you ask the supercomputer if there’s a God, and it says, “There is now.” 

That's better for the movies.

Speaking of movies, you've been portrayed by many people. Have you seen the films that have you as a character in them?

I saw Pirates of Silicon Valley. I saw Jobs, and I saw Steve Jobs.

What is that experience like, to see a version of yourself?

I haven't tried to look at it and say, “Do they look like me?” because in every single one, they were smart and nice. So, I don't...I'm not gonna complain! (laughs)

******

Many thanks for Steve Wozniak for being so generous with his time. The Silicon Valley Comic Con will be from April 21-23 in downtown San Jose, and you can get more info on it here.

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