“2001: A Space Odyssey”: Art versus 2012 reality

The 1969 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” was a landmark science-fiction film, in many ways far ahead of its time. With the recent release of a 1080p Blu-Ray video version, home viewers can enjoy nearly the same stunning level of graphics and visual effects of the original big-screen theater release. Forty-three years later, in the wake of films like Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien and Avatar, and with full-time SciFi channels on cable/satellite TV, it is easy to underestimate the impact that “2001” made when it was first released. Steven Spielberg called it his film generation’s “big bang,” while in 1977 George Lucas declared

Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science-fiction movie and it is going to be very hard for somebody to come along and make a better movie.

From a scientific point of view, the film’s account of the discovery of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence reflects the ever-growing fascination with fundamental scientific questions such as “Are there extraterrestrials?,” “Where are they?”, “What are they like?” — questions directly tied to Fermi’s paradox. In general, the film faithfully reflects humankind’s eternal fascination with the planets and stars and our future destiny in outer space.

The movie has also been influential in technology, and so it is worth taking score on which of its numerous predictions have been borne out in the 43 years since its release, and which have not:

  1. Space travel. Perhaps the biggest disappointment since the movie was released has been our failure to seriously embark on space travel. We have an International Space Station orbiting the planet, but it is a far cry from the huge double-wheel structure depicted in the movie. We traveled to the moon shortly after the film’s release, but we have not returned there in four decades, even for brief exploration trips, much less to construct permanent colonies. Several U.S. attempts to initiate human trips to Mars have been scuttled, victims of crushing budget deficits. Space vehicles of the enormous scale depicted in “2001” remain far-future fantasies.  NASA has had to bring back seventy-year old engineers to tell their “war stories” about the Apollo program, in order to preserve a rapidly disappearing corporate memory.
  2. Computer technology. While the film does not provide details of the construction of the HAL-9000 onboard computer, it is fair to say that few, if anyone, at the time could have predicted the enormous increase in computer power that has been achieved in the interim, with Moore’s Law marching relentlessly forward for 45 years and running. It is worth pointing out that a physically large, centralized computer was required in the movie to monitor and control all onboard systems. Nowadays this task could be handled by a handful of $1000 computers with relative ease. And no one in 1968 dreamed that by 2001 (and much more so in 2012), many individual households would have multiple computers (counting PCs, tablets and smartphones), each more powerful and capacious than the world’s most powerful systems in 1968. Here as elsewhere, reality has imitated art. Apple’s “Siri” assistant (and Steven Hawking as well) sounds like HAL because Steve Jobs wanted it to.
  3. Videophones. In “2001,” when Frank Bowman arrives at the space station, he places a videophone call to his daughter from a pay telephone booth. Nowadays, many of us carry in our pocket a smartphone that can place color video calls (e.g., using Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s FaceTime) to anyone else with a similar smartphone, and millions of others use similar services on PCs. Along this line, the visual resolution of the videophone screen in the movie was not very good — present-day Internet video is typically much better. Finally, it is worth pointing out the laughable suggestion that Frank Bowman should be charged $1.75 for placing a 2-minute videophone call to his daughter. Nowadays no one pays per-minute charges for FaceTime or Skype video calls, provided one has a suitable high-speed Internet service.
  4. Tablet computers. One prediction was right on the money: early prototypes of flat-screen display tablets appeared in roughly 2001. In the past few years they have exploded in popularity, and are now part of the daily routine of many millions of devoted users worldwide. It is amusing that in August 2011, in response to a patent infringement lawsuit by Apple Computers against Samsung, the latter argued that Apple’s iPad was too closely modeled on the tablets depicted in “2001.”
  5. Computer chess. Computer-based chess-playing programs have steadily increased in power in the intervening years since “2001.” Finally, in 1998, IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer defeated Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion chess player. Nowadays even PC-based chess programs can defeat most strong chess players. See the Math Drudge blog on games and our Huffington Post article for details.
  6. Voice recognition. While voiceprint identification was available not long after the movie’s release, full-fledged, multi-person, reasonably reliable voice recognition technology has only recently come to full flower. Apple’s voice-activated “Siri” assistant, now available on the latest iPhones, is a harbinger of the future, and similar products are in development by other high-tech firms.
  7. Artificial intelligence. At the time “2001” was produced, researchers were confident that fully operational artificial intelligence systems would be available in just a few years. Alas, even now we do not have the equivalent of the HAL-9000 system aboard the movie’s spacecraft, which effortlessly exchanged information with the astronauts. But we are getting much closer, as evidenced by last year’s stunning victory of IBM’s Watson computer system in the American TV game show Jeopardy! Renewed interest in the Turing test speaks to the revived sense of progress in this area.

So how many more years will transpire before we truly return to space in the style of “2001”? Recently NASA, recognizing continuing problems with safety and technological obsolescence, terminated its Space Shuttle program, leaving the world’s largest economy without a viable space transport. NASA is placing its hopes on private ventures such as SpaceX, founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, which is developing its Falcon 9 spacecraft to deliver cargoes (and later people) to the International Space Station. But NASA’s longer-term plans to send humans to Mars remain mired in budget cuts and high-level indecision. Even American Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s more modest suggestion to create a colony on the moon was met with derision. We hope that it was the messenger, not his message and long-term vision, that was being derided.

Meanwhile, China has announced an ambitious five-year plan to develop space technology. China’s initial moon plans include orbiters that will make soft lunar landings, survey the lunar landscape, and then return collect samples of the moon’s surface to earth for analysis. Ultimately China plans to place astronauts on the moon. One advantage of China’s space program is that most likely it will not be subject to the “fits and starts” and political infighting that have plagued the U.S. space program.

Looking further into the future, NASA and the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) recently embarked on a 100-Year Starship Study, as a first step to chart out the future of space exploration. This includes plans for interstellar travel, energy generation and requisite medical and radiation-resistance technologies.

There is clearly a public appetite for human space discovery, independent of the public’s appreciation of spin-off technologies generated from the first space age. What is missing is a sales pitch — like the arms race but ideally less grim — that made possible the Apollo program. Time will tell when and how the 2001 vision will be realized, and if it will be human or robotic. In the meantime we all can dream.

[A version of this article appeared in the Huffington Post.]

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