2001: How Much Did Kubrick Get Right?

When Stanley Kubrick’s monumental film 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968, it represented more than a touchstone in cinematic art and special effects; it was a wish of how man would escape his earthly cradle and venture forth toward the stars.

To a wide-eyed viewer seated in the audience nearly 33 years ago, the future never looked more amazing, for mixed in with the film’s densely crafted metaphysical and political attitudes was an extrapolation of the evolution of technology, as envisioned by Kubrick and his co-writer, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

But now that time has marched on and we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, how close were the filmmakers’ projections to reality?

Fly Me to the Moon

What Was Predicted: Passengers could shuttle between the Earth and orbiting space stations via Pan Am’s supersonic transports. Dr. Haywood Floyd dozes on board while a movie plays in the seat back before him and as his pen floats through the weightless cabin.

Where We Stand Now: As the Apollo program headed toward a lunar landing in the late 1960s, Pan American World Airways accepted 90,000 reservations for commercial flights to the moon, predicted to begin circa 2000. Alas, in 1991 Pan Am filed for bankruptcy, only to rise from the dead several years later as a regional service among such cities as Pittsburgh, Bangor, Maine, and Sanford, Fla.

But tests of experimental aircraft are continuing, based on predictions that commercial suborbital and orbital flights will take place in the near future, to feed an anticipated growth in space industry and tourism.

At least today, many jets have personalized or seat-back viewscreens as in the 2001 plane.

Kubrick commissioned the Parker Pen Company to design an “atomic pen” that would presumptively work in zero gravity without filling the plane with clouds of floating ink. The concept behind its design — a heat generator — presages today’s inkjet printers.

Call Me

What Was Predicted: Bell Telephone’s Picturephone would enable face-to-face communications between someone on Earth and a caller on board an orbiting space station. Price of a two-minute call? $1.70.

Where We Stand Now: The Bell System — a consortium of local and long-distance companies as well as research laboratories — was split in 1984 in a historic antitrust decision. PicturePhone, which Bell marketed aggressively in the 1960s and early ’70s, never caught on with a public likely concerned over answering the telephone while wearing only a bath towel.

But Internet broadband technology, video teleconferencing and digital cameras have developed to the point where face-to-face communication is gaining more popularity.

And as the rise of Web cams suggests, people today are perhaps less modest about revealing themselves to friend or stranger alike.

What Was Predicted: Security access would be checked through voiceprint identification.

Where We Stand Now: Voiceprint recognition software — one of a slew of biometric technologies slowly taking over the need for personal identification numbers, or PINs — is being increasingly used in computer and cell phone access and caller ID.

Out of This World

What Was Predicted: Hilton and Howard Johnsons would be among the corporations with franchises in space.

Where We Stand Now: Howard Johnsons, whose hotel and restaurant properties in the United States and Canada have been reduced in the past 25 years while its international presence has expanded, seems far off from opening its “Earthlight Room.” So expect no Hojo burgers in space in the near future.

But Hilton is studying the feasibility of opening accommodations 100 miles above terra firma.

“We want to take a hard look at it and see if Hilton can be first into space,” said company spokeswoman Jeannie Datz last year. “It’s certainly not going to happen tomorrow. We’re talking 15 to 20 years down the road, if any of it makes sense.”

Talk About a Commute

What Was Predicted: Moon colonies set up by Americans and Soviets would conduct scientific and commercial enterprises.

Where We Stand Now: So far, the only manmade objects on the moon are the remnants of several landing parties and unmanned craft, some scientific equipment, a barely used lunar car, and a bunch of golf balls. NASA’s plans for a lunar colony to be set up by the mid-1980s were curtailed due to cost and a lack of political will. Given the difficulties just in getting an orbiting space station up and running, a moon base is probably far, far off in the future.

But a recent discovery that there is ice on the moon has kept the dream alive, that man will someday colonize Earth’s satellite, if only as a launching pad for interplanetary travel. Of course, if oil were discovered under the Sea of Tranquility, things would be very different.

Vast Wasteland

What Was Predicted: The communications explosion would cause the venerable British Broadcasting Corp. to expand its broadcast channels, creating “BBC 12.”

Where We Stand Now: The BBC still has only two television channels, but its commercial competitors, as well as dozens of satellite/cable stations, have increased the British television airwaves way beyond the pittance of TV channels that existed in 1968.

But that doesn’t mean the programming has changed much. The No. 1 show in the United Kingdom today is still the long-running soap opera Coronation Street.

What Was Predicted: Portable, flat-screen, clipboard-sized televisions.

Where We Stand Now: Flat-screen plasma displays have already been wedded to TVs and computers, while portable DVD players/viewers and Watchman TVs have been available for some time.

Getting Chills

What Was Predicted: Astronauts on deep space voyages would be kept in hibernation, to preserve resources on the months-long trip to Jupiter.

Where We Stand Now: There have been several advances in discovering the secret of human hibernation, which would make deep-space voyages feasible. Research at North Carolina State University has identified two genes — PL and PDK-4 — that appear to control hibernation by halting carbohydrate metabolism and controlling the production of enzymes that break up stored fatty acids in the body. Researchers are also studying the effects of melatonin on hibernation. Applications of these genetic or hormonal treatments may also include the preservation of donated organs.

Cryogenics — which refers to freezing people to be thawed out later — is pretty much untested, although experiments with frogs suggest that cells reduced in temperature can be resuscitated without damage.

That Does Not Compute

What Was Predicted: An artificial intelligence could not only run all functions of an interplanetary craft, but also beat humans at chess, engage in conversations using voice synthesis, and sing. Oh yeah, it could also kill people.

Where We Stand Now: The HAL 9000 was ahead of its time (and ours) in terms of an independently thinking machine. Artificial intelligence has progressed in the research stage, at such places as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and vehicles in unmanned expeditions to other planets (like a Mars rover) are being developed with cognitive tools that may allow them to think about how to react to stimuli without waiting for instructions to be broadcast from Earth. But we’re still a ways off.

Lynn Andrea Stein, a professor of computer science at Massachussetts’ Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, points out that today’s computers can tackle all kinds of specialized tasks. But when it comes to complex human traits such as judgment and creativity, technology still can’t compute.

“Wonder, fear, free will … each of these is a very complicated phenomenon, and I think we’ll need to understand them much better before we can help the computer to have any of them (if we ever can),” she told ABCNEWS.com in an e-mail.

At least the filmmakers got the chess part right. In 1968 international chess master David Levy wagered that no computer could beat him in 10 years, and he won the bet in 1978 when he defeated the Chess 4.7 computer with three wins and one draw. But today, computers such as Deep Thought and Deep Blue have defeated grand masters in tournament play.

There are commonly available text-to-voice “reading” software applications. Also, a program by Myriad called Virtual Singer can mimic human voice, so the dulcet tones of HAL singing “Daisy” could not only be matched but likely improved.

In terms of murder? As much as we may want to kill our computers, fortunately there hasn’t been a case of the reverse.

Warner Bros., which owns the rights to 2001, is planning a theatrical re-release of the film in the fall of 2001.