Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is solidified in its place in the Pantheon of great Sci-Fi films (just below Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, starring Rick Moranis). But in 2013, 12 years after the setting of the film and 45 years after it was made (’68 for you thickos), how do its predictions of the future stand up?
It’s good to keep in mind that when A Space Odyssey was released, people had yet to set foot on the moon. Considering this, it’s kind of surprising that the first space station was made a reality not so long after the film. In 1971 the Russian Salyut1 was fully operational as the world’s first station. Today the ninth station flies above our heads in low-earth orbit: the ISS (International Space Station). It has been inhabited for eleven years and can be seen from earth with the naked eye.
Though there have been some cases in which people have paid to leave our planet, it hasn’t been done on the scale Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group, is thinking of; “If it is a success” he says “we want to move into orbital flight and then, possibly, even get a hotel up there”. In some way it will resemble what we see in 2001. In the film there’s a shuttle somewhat shaped like a regular Boeing, on the side it says Pan American, which is an American airline. In reality it’ll probably be Virgin Galactic taking this memorable step in aviation. Costs will be around $200,000 for training and a 3-hour flight. 500 tickets have already been sold, even though the date for the first flight is yet to be announced.
On the first spaceflight in the film the stewardess is wearing so called ‘grip shoes’ to prevent her from floating around because of the lack of gravity. These days of course we realise it’s completely unrealistic, particularly as she walks around as she would on earth. Later in the film, on their way to Jupiter, we see one of the characters jogging on the walls of a round chamber. It can’t be denied that Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had some imagination, but unfortunately there’s no device to create such atmospheres yet.
On the space station, on his way to the moon, Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) is required to identify himself by reading his personal information out loud to a computer. Commercial speech recognition has existed since 1990. More specific, however, is voice recognition. This technique is used to establish a person’s identity rather than just recognising commands. Computer hardware manufacturer Intel is planning on releasing a model of their new Ultrabook, which will have a voice recognition feature for security purposes.
On this space station there are phone booths with a video connection allowing you to see the person you’re calling. Nowadays fast and wireless Internet connections make it possible to make video calls with our laptops and smartphones. The concept is much older though. After the telephone was invented, Edison came up with an idea for a Telephonoscope in 1870, a device that would be able to transmit light waves to create an image. Also in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis we can see a similar device.
In the space ship The Discovery the characters are watching the news on a portable flat device, which looks an awful lot like the iPad. The interface of the device isn’t shown because they only watch the news on it without any interaction. What makes it even more fascinating is that in a lawsuit Apple blamed Samsung for stealing their design for the iPad and using it for their Galaxy Tab. The latter refers to these devices in Kubrick’s film, saying the design had been around for quite a while.
The Discovery is controlled by a supercomputer called Hal 9000. This computer is based on Artificial Intelligence and even appears to have emotions, although whether these are real, or just programmed for the comfort of the astronauts remains unclear. In reality the development of AI has been going on for years, but is still nowhere close to the HAL 9000. In the 90’s a chess computer was built, it was intelligent enough to defeat a person, but this has more to do with programming than AI. What may remind us of HAL 9000 in a more formalistic fashion is the new feature on the iPhone 4S called Siri. This software also uses voice recognition to execute commands and gives the impression of AI. Siri even knows about HAL 9000, just ask her about him.
Kubrick had a lot of experts working on the technological designs of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When you think past the whole analogue feel the film has over it, they’ve been quite successful. Most of the presented technologies have been realised since the film came out in ’68, but of course it’s not just this vision of the future that has been vindicated. As long as people have been around, they’ve been imagining the wonders of distant worlds and the technology of the future. Whether expressed visually or in literature, Science Fiction has always been a genre based on breathing life into mankind’s ambitions and failings. From Georges Méliès to George Lucas we’ve seen some amazing ideas on our screens, and who knows, perhaps modern science fiction films might be accurate predictions of our future.
Won’t that be nice…