Fifty years later, scientists reflect on the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey

A year before humanity put a man on the moon, Stanley Kubrick released what some argue to be his ultimate masterpiece – 2001: A Space Odyssey. This year marks half a century since it was first shown, and in that time the futuristic epic has not only rocked the film world but the science world as well.

The brainchild of filmmaker Kubrick and sci-fi veteran Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 follows astronauts as they investigate alien artefacts found on the moon. The movie has a distinctly philosophical streak that was missing from the sci-fi genre at the time, and this combined with realistic production design, visual effects, and an instantly iconic score to create a pioneering work of cinematic art. 

2001 inspired new generations of sci-fi storytellers, from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg to Christopher Nolan, opening up the floodgates for blockbusters in the years to come.

But 2001 has also had a profound influence on science: it’s bursting with technology and ideas well ahead of their time. While the film was being made, NASA was madly trying to put men on the moon, so Kubrick and Clarke knew that their sets and props had to outstrip the new technologies being spawned or else rapidly become outdated or incorrect.

Their solution was to hire astronomical artists, aerospace engineers and ex-NASA employees, who advised on spacecraft design, control panels, display systems, communication devices and more. This close consulting not only created a sense of scientific accuracy, but also produced an array of visionary predictions about humankind’s future technologies, all based in real possibilities. 

Watch the movie closely and you’ll see flat screen computer monitors, touchscreen tablets, robotics used in space, and, of course, artificial intelligence.

“I never considered 2001 as a strict prediction,” Clarke said later, “but as more of a vision, a way things could work.”

In many ways, 1968’s science fiction has now become 2018’s reality, with the film’s influence pervasive in the conceptualisation, design and application of various technologies.

In an article published in the journal Science Robotics this week, US computer scientist and roboticist Robin Murphy argues that the film not only anticipated many advancements and challenges in robotics, but also had an impact on the public perception of artificial intelligence (AI).

The spacex falcon 9 rocket: in many ways, a direct descendent of technology portrayed in kubrick's film.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket: in many ways, a direct descendent of technology portrayed in Kubrick’s film.

Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

“That may be one of the movie’s greatest achievements: it placed AI into the mainstream consciousness even before the first AI robot, Shakey, was completed in 1969,” writes Murphy, who is a professor at Texas A&M University.  

She points out that the AI featured in the film – HAL, the onboard supercomputer – “introduced the public to the concept of a robot not built for factory work, as well as to the emerging fields of natural language understanding, computer vision, and reasoning. 

“Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a child was a covert introduction to the nascent field of AI and robotics.”

HAL’s function bears a striking resemblance to modern voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa. In homage to the film, Siri is actually programmed to respond “I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” when asked to “open the pod bay doors”. The advances illustrated by HAL can also be seen in today’s self-driving cars, customer service chatbots, and even the learning algorithms that make the Amazon Warehouse possible.

Lewis Mitchell, a mathematician at the University of Adelaide in Australia, says he believes we would have had the science of AI regardless of 2001. However, the visionary ideas of this film – and others like it – have undoubtedly fed into the design and application of such technologies.

“HAL definitely shaped the current AI-as-personal-assistant idea,” he says. “That these personal assistant apps speak with you, using such a calming voice, I think must be a consequence of Clarke and Kubrick’s vision in 2001.”

He cites video calls as another example: “We would have developed that technological capability, but would companies like Apple or Microsoft have thought so soon to build it into the iPhone or Skype, without the idea coming from the film? I’m not sure.”

HAL’s rebellion in the film also touches on deeper ethical questions and predicts today’s fear that AI could be used for sinister purposes.

“How much autonomy should we give to an AI, what to do when the AI starts recommending things we don’t necessarily like or agree with, or that may have negative consequences — these are all very much questions we are wrestling with in the modern age,” Mitchell says. “I see Facebook’s News Feed algorithm in the HAL portion of the film!”

But not everything the movie predicted has eventuated. 

In particular, Robin Murphy thinks it set up unrealistic expectations for AI: “HAL used computer vision in ways we still strive for; it could track the crew members as they moved in and out of the field of view of multiple cameras, interpret facial expressions, and even read lips.”

Looking distinctly monolithic, amazon's smart-home system uses an ai voice assistant named alexa, its vocal style influenced by that of kubrick's hal.

Looking distinctly monolithic, Amazon’s smart-home system uses an AI voice assistant named Alexa, its vocal style influenced by that of Kubrick’s HAL.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The film also presented future humans who have become space travellers, with space station hotels, moon colonisation, and missions to Jupiter. 

“When it was first released and the Apollo programme was in full swing, we really expected to have moved into space as depicted in the movie by 2001, only three decades later,” reflects Duncan Steel of the Centre for Space Science Technology in New Zealand.

Of course, we haven’t achieved that level of pioneering – but the film has still influenced space science.

“I’d say it has had a profound effect on the way people think about space travel,” says Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, in Sydney. “The mystic weirdness of 2001 also added to the romanticisation of space as somewhere ‘special’.”

According to Karlie Noon, a graduate student in astronomy at Australia’s science research organisation CSIRO, one particular theme that has continued to resonate is “humanity’s interest in using artificial intelligence for space travel”.

She points out that much of SpaceX’s technology depends on machine learning. 

“In 2015, the Falcon 9 successfully landed through the guidance of computer vision being input into a route prediction algorithm,” she says. 

“Similarly, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is largely dependent on machine learning to self-correct orbital parameters – a technique that has the potential to enable 100% self-navigation of spacecrafts.”

The film’s impact is even obvious in the ways we interact with space. The 2001 Mars Odyssey, a NASA probe currently orbiting the red planet, is named in tribute to the film. 

In April 2018, Kubrick and Clarke were also honoured by being put on the map at the edge of the solar system – Kubrick Mons and Clarke Montes are now two major mountains on Pluto’s moon, Charon.

But much of 2001’s influence is not concrete. It’s difficult to quantify how the film reshaped humanity’s thinking about its place in the cosmos and sparked a sense of wonder and inspiration – especially in future scientists. 

Douglas Trumbull, visual effects supervisor for the film, told The Guardian earlier this year: “I meet scientists, engineers and astrophysicists almost every week who say they went into their line of work because they watched the film when they were young. It has profoundly affected that community to believe that certain things were going to be real and possible and spectacular.”

Steel, who has watched the movie dozens of times, agrees.

“I was born within five metres of the back row of seats in a cinema,” he says, referring to the Palladium in Midsomer Norton, UK, where his father was the manager. 

“When the movie first ran there, I think I watched every showing in the first week. Did the movie inspire me and prompt some enthusiasm for working in space science? You bet.”

Lewis Mitchell similarly says that 2001 “absolutely” inspired his journey into science. 

“It’s one of the first science fiction movies I ever saw,” he says, recalling watching the film for the first time in primary school with his mother. “Her interest in sci-fi and science generally is a major factor in me ending up in this career at all, and watching 2001 at an early age is a key example.”

This is a familiar story for scientists across fields. Dempster watched the movie with his family at the drive-in and it affected his decision to work in space engineering, while Noon – a self-proclaimed “huge sci-fi nerd” – has seen it several times, and each time leaves “with a greater sense of excitement but caution about the future of space travel”.

The film’s influence extends even further beyond its 161-minute runtime. It laid the groundwork for dozens of thoughtful and scientifically intriguing movies in following years, which continue to inspire scientists to this day.

2001: A Space Odyssey’s existence at the intersection of art, science and technology is testament to the fact that these fields have never been mutually exclusive – they inform and improve each other.

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