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George Takei’s take on net neutrality, Edward Snowden and the future of ‘Star Trek’


George Takei is most famous for playing Capt. Hikaru Sulu on "Star Trek." But since then, he's become an Internet superstar, hosting the award-winning Web series "Takei's Take," a show underwritten by AARP meant to help introduce technology to seniors, youngsters and everyone in between. I spent a half-hour with Takei at a recent event in Washington. The following transcript has been lightly edited.

So, congratulations on your Webby. Webbies, plural.

Thank you very much. Yes, we're very excited about that. We're popular!

For people who aren't really familiar with your show could you just briefly explain what it is and what you're focused on?

Well, this season, which opens June 5, we're totally different from what we were doing the first season. We now go on location. All over the world, literally. The first few episodes we filmed in Austin —

During South By Southwest.

Yes. And we just got back from Boston, where tech originally began. In fact, we filmed at the very site where Alexander Graham Bell made his very first telephone call. And just a few steps away is an old building that's been adapted and reused as an incubator and it's a beehive of activity. We went to other places where ideas are much more developed and being ready to be commercially marketed. Robots — people immediately think that's what's going to take over mundane jobs, that those jobs will be lost to the machines, but in fact, there are more jobs that are going to be created by these robots, building the robots.

Because of the manufacturing —

The manufacturing, the development, the innovation, the research that goes into it and all that. So there's a really interesting and exciting visit to Boston or Cambridge, and in two weeks we're going to be filming in Japan, where a lot of tech innovations are happening. We're going on location now, in the second season.

So of all the things you've seen technologically, what's the most exciting idea you've come across so far?

Well, in Boston we saw this firm that's producing robots. And that is fascinating. It's kind of anthropomorphic.

I was at NASA some time ago, where they're developing robots to replace astronauts. Because astronauts, unfortunately, are very cost-ineffective. They sleep. They eat. They get rid of what they eat. (Laughs) And all those facilities have to be provided to them. But they have downtime, so they're developing robots that are stronger than humans. And I got into a curling contest, 35 pounds, with a robot, and it took me -- I was able to do five or six.

George Takei, left, and John Cho — both of whom played U.S.S. Enterprise helmsman Hikaru Sulu on "Star Trek." (pixellle)

How many could the robot do?

It kept on going, a lot like this (imitates the robot doing bicep curls) and that dramatically emphasizes how much more productive that can be. The International Space Station is designed for people who go in and out of spaces that — there are portals that they need to step through. So they need, by necessity, by the very structure of the space station, [the robots] need the anthropomorphic [design]. But they're going to be 20, 30, 40 times much more cost-effective than humans.

And the ISS is only going to be in service until something like 2020, so we have to figure out some alternative.

That's right. Well, that's the other exciting thing. We're at the frontier. We're boldly going where no one has been before, and so what's going to replace it? How are we going to continue our exploration beyond that? To be covering all this is really exciting, and we're really at the frontier edges of our civilization.

A lot of my fans are of [the original] "Star Trek" generation but they have children and grandchildren who are equally interested in "Star Trek."

Me included!

You're probably the grandchild generation (laughs). And so we cover all of the demographics. Because it's sponsored by AARP, people think it's for that [older] generation. No. We are preparing the next generation for AARP, as well as the generation coming after that.

So what's the response been like among seniors to your show?

They love it! They're "Star Trek" fans to begin with. And "Star Trek" was technology, boldly going -- exploring new civilizations and new alien life forms. And so that's what engages the 50-plus generation. And we are actually dealing with that in reality.

Back in the 1960s, when "Star Trek" premiered, a lot of technology then was science fiction.

And now it's science fact.

We've gone beyond! We had this amazing device on our hips. We walked all over the ship with it, and we talked into it — with no cords! Today we've gone way beyond that. Here (he points to my iPhone, which is recording our conversation) it records, you can see movies on it, you can text on it, you can do all sorts of things we didn't do on our communicators. So in almost 50 years — it's not quite 50 years yet, we've gone beyond what we depicted as the 23rd century.

What's the next technology from "Star Trek" that you envision coming true?

The one that I earnestly pray for is the transporter. Where you just sparkle and pop out. A few seconds later we sparkle at the destination and pop in. No security check, no canceled flights, no delayed flights.

I used to have a half-hour drive to school in the mornings, and I always thought how cool it'd be if I could push a button, my bookcase would like, rotate around and suddenly there'd be a transporter pad there.

Society is constantly changing. We live in a dynamic society. While doing this show and explaining technology to other people, I'm benefiting from it as well. Like Google Glass — I have my doubts about it. I mean, we have problems with people driving and texting, or listening to telephone conversations and they're distracted. Can you imagine, in New York, walking down 7th Avenue with that dense frown, if people have those glasses on, bumping into each other, walking into traffic? There's going to be a lot more traffic accidents.

The other thing that occurs to me is that you can have your Google Glass on in a crowded subway, and it's $1,500 on your face.

Right. What if someone grabs it off your face?

And the door opens, they can slip out into the crowd, and the door closes, and there you are, stunned. 'Oh my God,' and he's gone. $1,500.

Are there policy debates that you're into? Are you focused on the net neutrality issue, at all? Is that something you're following?

Well, here I am in Washington, so you have to ask a question like that (laughs).

I do think we need a lot of policy to deal with these new devices and the ripple effects they're having. What Edward Snowden has done, with the privacy issue — it's a complex issue.

Have we erred too far on the side of national security and need to rein things in? Where do you see that balance?

I think what Edward Snowden's done, he's started a lot of important conversations. However, he has violated certain rules that we have already. It's like (pauses) Dr. Martin Luther King. He was fighting for civil rights, because the laws we had at that time were not democratic. And so he willingly broke those laws, fully aware of the consequences, ready to go to jail for having broken that law, because it was an unjust law. Snowden's broken the law, but he runs away. I think the discussion would be more intensified, and there'd be a greater urgency about it, if he had stayed and dealt with what he had done. But you know, these are very complex issues. So I want to hear from the national security side, but they have to be mindful of the compromises that they have to make in the interest of privacy.

You have a big role to play on the Internet. A lot of people have, with the net neutrality issue, raised concerns about companies like Dropbox or Google having to possibly pay Internet providers to get faster, smoother access to people like you and me. Would you be open to paying a toll — or would AARP be open to paying a toll — to Internet providers to reach your audience?

Well, this audience was built not by them, but by our efforts, by our creativity. And once we have that audience built, they want to charge us for it? So, I think that, too, is an issue that needs to be examined and debated and in the interest of fairness, a policy has to be created to deal with the fact that access to large numbers of people was built by us, using [the broadband companies'] platform. They can't unilaterally say, 'All right, it's our platform, we're going to charge you for it.' They didn't build that audience.

I don't want to monopolize all your time. But before I let you go I want to ask you whether you think "Star Trek" could come back as a TV show. What would it look like? What would you want it to look like?

Well, the audience is obviously out there, which is demonstrated by the two rebooted movies. They were both enormously successful, and that's why there's going to be a third one. It's not just the 50th anniversary [of "Star Trek"], but Paramount has pecuniary interests. They intend to make a profit on it. So I think there's an audience for a television return for "Star Trek."

In the rebooted universe, or the Prime universe?

I think in the Prime universe. Frankly, that's the one I'm very comfortable with. And I find that more engaging, because you know, the rebooted one is essentially action-adventure and a terrific space opera. But what "Star Trek" did was, it used science fiction as a metaphor to comment on burning issues of the time. Certainly the times of the 1960s, but there are burning issues today.

What are some of the issues you hope would be dealt with in a new series?

Bloody revolt in Ukraine. Catastrophic global climate change. Murderous homophobia in Africa — they can execute gays that are found to be gay, or suspected to be gay. So there are these issues that are literally about life and death today, and science fiction is a wonderful medium to get people galvanized. And "Star Trek" did it by both entertaining and stimulating thinking on it.

Would you want to see it as a show that's focused on a starship, or a more stationary, DS9 approach?

I'd rather have the starship. It's called "Star Trek."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.



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