2001: Technology and the Movie

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 2001

In my youth there were two future years of very special significance.  They were, of course, 1984 and 2001.  Because of Orwell’s book 1984 and Kubrick’s movie 2001, these special years carried particular visions of what the future would be like.  But these years seemed impossibly far away to me at the time, and the accompanying visions were merely academic.

Now that once-ominous year of 1984 is but a distant and unremarkable memory, and already we have reached the seemingly unattainable year of 2001.  It prompts me to think once again of our popular conceptions of the future, particularly as they relate to technology, and to contrast those historical conceptions with the encountered realities.

George Orwell’s vision of the world as it would be in 1984 was of a “bare, hungry, and dilapidated place” ruled by the mysterious figurehead Big Brother.  Party members were controlled through the omnipresent telescreen, which not only broadcast propaganda, but also enabled the continuous video monitoring of all activity.  Winston Smith, the main character, worked in the Ministry of Truth, where he had the task of continuously rewriting history so as to conform with the latest version of party belief.

When Orwell wrote his book in 1949, television broadcasting was already a regular service, but in the actual year of 1984 there was still very little use of two-way video.  Only recently have Orwellian fears been raised over the increasing ubiquity of inexpensive embedded cameras and sensors on the Internet.  In the UK this technology is already being used to monitor city streets in high crime areas.  From a technology perspective we have now made possible what has been called the “transparent society.”  If Big Brother were around today, he would have his technology.

Video has always been the staple of future technology projections, and Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick featured the use of videotelephony in the movie 2001.  The astronauts use prototype Bell System Picturephones to communicate to people back on earth.  While much of the space technology from that movie still looks realistic, it is remarkable that the Picturephone itself was abandoned only a few years after the movie was released in 1968, and even more amazing that the Bell System itself ceased to exist in 1984.  It is worth noting that several seemingly outlandish projections from the movie have actually happened – space cooperation with Russia and the commercial exploitation of space.

The technological focus of the movie 2001, however, is on the computer HAL.  Now I wonder: the year 2001 is here, and where is HAL?  Well, the hardware is now better than anyone could have imagined in 1968, but the complexities of natural language understanding and common sense reasoning are much deeper than most of us knew then.  In the 33 calendar years since the movie was made, there have been 22 “Moore years” (18-month periods), yielding about a factor of ten million improvement in processor power.  When the astronaut Dave Bowman pulls the circuit cards from HAL, they look suspiciously like those from the famed old PDP-8 computer.  Charming!  Even scriptwriter Arthur C. Clarke, himself the inventor of the communications satellite, could not have then imagined the power of today’s processors.

As HAL’s memory is removed it (“he”) sings childishly, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do” in a voice synthesized at Bell Labs.  That’s the easy trick, and today speech synthesis is quite good, though not yet as good as HAL’s.  On the other hand, while speech recognition has improved greatly since 1968, its fluency is still far short of HAL’s.  You can talk to a computer today, but only laboriously and within a constrained domain.

What we have come nowhere near, though, is the “I” in HAL’s dialogue with Bowman  – the sense of a “being” within the computer.  When Bowman starts to disconnect HAL, the computer says:

“I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me.  I have the greatest enthusiasm for the mission.  You are destroying my mind.  I will become childish.  I will become nothing.”

The words here that stand out to me are ‘I’, ‘understand’, and ‘enthusiasm’.  Would you associate any of these words with a computer today?  I wouldn’t.

The event that leads up to HAL’s disconnection is Bowman’s chilling discovery that HAL has made a mistake – something that no HAL 9000-model computer has ever done before.  However, in the real world of 2001 perhaps the most common phrase output from a computer is “this program has performed an illegal operation.”  Is this what we would call infallibility?  Hardly.

As that eminent theorist, Yogi Berra, once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”


Robert Lucky