Short bio: Computer Scientist, FOSS supporter (read more)
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When Arthur C. Clarke died last week at the age of 90, science fiction—hell, science in general—lost one of its greatest, most forward-looking masters. In his honor, PM’s resident geek and sci-fi buff analyzes the most eerily predictive, prescient films of the future. They’re not necessarily the best movies—just the ones that got the science right, or will sometime soon.
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Released: 1968 | Set in the year: 2001
Clarke's biggest contribution to science—the concept of placing satellites in geosynchronous orbit—makes the briefest of cameos in 2001. Despite its place in cinematic history, this movie is a particularly easy target. Once our own timeline slipped past the year 2001, it became obvious that, as measured and bleak as the film's technology seemed at the time, it was a work of strange optimism. Artificial intelligence is still far too dumb to achieve psychosis and getting to the moon—much less Jupiter—seems like as much of a challenge now as it was when Apollo 11 landed there, a year after the movie was released. Still, Clarke and Stanley Kubrick nailed the feel of space travel, and its eventual commercialization, in a way that still resonates today. And HAL 9000's calculated mutiny is plausible enough to ring in any NASA administrator's head, when the time comes—and it will—to consider the role of truly autonomous systems in manned missions.
Space tourism: The image is as indelible as those cavemen worshipping at the foot of the monolith: an elegant but strangely familiar-looking craft gliding through space. This was not a muscular rocket ship, but a space plane bearing Pan American's logo, like a jetliner that simply flew higher than the rest. (Clarke and Kubrick's business acumen was far less predictive. Pan Am went under in 1991 and Virgin Airways—much less Virgin Galactic—hadn't yet formulated as an idea in 19-year-old Richard Branson's brain in 1969). The inside of the craft, from the rows of empty seats to the weightless flight attendants, reinforced the feeling of uneventful, commercial air travel. In the year 2008, space tourism is far from casual, but 2001's prediction that one day flying to an orbital space station would require zero training or preparation—and the corresponding outlook Clarke offered PM last year—is gradually coming true.
Artificial intelligence: HAL 9000 may be too smart for his own good. He's also too smart, period. In the 60's many AI researchers were extremely optimistic, predicting full machine sentience by the end of the millennium. And HAL's purpose is valid—since much of the crew of Discovery One is in cryogenic sleep during the long trip to Jupiter, an AI could be instrumental to keeping the ship in working order. But in the 40 years since the movie's release, artificial intelligence has been a major disappointment. And any time an autonomous system has the power to kill, such as an armed unmanned vehicle, roboticists are careful to require an authorized human operator to actually pull the trigger, or, in HAL's case, turn off the crew's life support.