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Humankind's future "lies in space"
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Wednesday, 3 January, 2001, 10:51 GMT
2001: Odysseus bound
Scene from movie
What happened to the big themes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, asks BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

2001 is becoming like 1984. Seventeen years ago this month, you could hardly turn on the radio, watch the TV or pick up a newspaper without some reference to George Orwell's disturbing classic being thrown in your face.

Now it is the turn of 2001, the year that has become a symbol of our technological future. But one has to ask: whatever happened to the vision? Little of what Clarke and Kubrick suggested has materialised. On the major themes, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey got almost everything wrong.


Some computer experts believed we would soon have a machine that was the equal of a Shakespeare or a Beethoven

When it was made, the movie looked a little more than 30 years into the future and proved, if nothing else, how tricky it is to predict where we are going. For a start, we are no closer to having a truly intelligent computer like Hal.

In the late 1960s, when 2001 was made, some computer experts believed we would soon have a machine that was the equal of a Shakespeare or a Beethoven.

There are even some today who still proclaim the same. They should know better. In fact, because we now know how difficult it would be to build intelligence into a machine, we are probably further away from realising the dream than we were in the 1960s.

Machines can think; of that there seems little doubt. After all, on one level, we are molecular machines - and we think. But we are nowhere near understanding how we do it.

Large main frame computer AP
The biggest computers still cannot think like humans
We also do not have a five-star hotel in space. The International Space Station (five stars for the view) is our first colony in orbit, but it is far from being the huge wheel-shaped city featured in the film. And we do not have a base on the Moon. Nor have we detected intelligent life in space.

What parts of the future have we acquired since the film was made? Mobile phones, microwaves, computers, the internet, genetics - make your own list. To my mind the two most powerful forces that will shape the future will be communications and genetics.


Using a computer that is within earshot will be easier and less intimidating to many than having to find one that is within arms' length

Some people have said that the most important technological development of the 20th Century was the microchip. I disagree. The most important development was the internet. In the long run, books, radio and TV will all be seen as precursor inventions to the net.

We have not even begun to see how this will change our lives. It will become faster and, with the introduction of wireless technology that works, it will be everywhere.

Soon, the idea of only being on the web when you are typing on a keyboard whilst looking at a screen will seem rather quaint.

Using a computer that is within earshot will be easier and less intimidating to many than having to find one that is within arms' length. Television, for example, is destined to become but one aspect of the web - just one option among an ever-growing number.

Artist's impression of Mars exploration Nasa
We have not even got to Mars yet
Soon, TV programmes will not be broadcast at specific times but released on certain days and available any time afterwards. Just by talking to your television, you will create your own TV schedules, picking and choosing from programmes from all over the world.

If any point marked the arrival of the future, it was the announcement last June that scientists had produced a "rough draft" of the human "code of life".


Will they look back at us as "baseline humans", much as we look back at Neanderthals and their kin?

This information will lead to an unprecedented level of control over our own bodies and better treatments for disease. A quarter of us currently die from cancer - in a century from now, that figure could be much smaller.

If looking 30 years ahead is hard, looking 1,000 years into the future is arguably easier. By 3001, we could have intelligent computers that are our companions and equals. We could have the ability to tune our bodies to provide hundreds of years of healthy life. But then it is easy to speculate.

What separates us from the people of 1001 is not much. Antibiotics, communications, transport - they are all extensions of what they had. What will separate us from the humans of 3001 could be immense.

Will they look back at us as "baseline humans", much as we look back at Neanderthals and their kin? I hope that they will have learnt from us that the future is not so much about new technologies but about sharing what it means to be human.

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See also:

03 Jan 01 | Americas
Mysterious monolith marks 2001
11 Sep 00 | Festival of science
Arthur C Clarke demands cold fusion rethink
09 Mar 99 | UK
Kubrick: A film odyssey
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