In real 2001, Kubrick odyssey still resonates
It was 1968, but the year - at least in film - was 2001.Skip to next paragraph
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Man wouldn't land on the moon for another year, and the advent of personal computers was even further in the future. But with "2001: A Space Odyssey," filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke brought to life a vision of the future so powerful that it etched a place in the nation's cultural consciousness - where it still resonates today, 33 years after its release.
The film's version of 2001 doesn't quite match up with reality: There are, for example, no manned missions to Jupiter on NASA's schedule. And while scientists have created a computer that can beat a chess champion, advances in artificial intelligence have yet to produce a lip-reading, feeling computer that matches the likes of the movie's HAL.
Still, the fundamental man-versus-machine issues raised by "2001" remain more relevant than ever in a world marked by ever-increasing rates of technological progress and discovery, according to interviews with sociologists, scientists, and artists.
"The question is whether our humanity will control technology, or the other way around," says Dr. Leon Lederman, former head of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. "That's the crucial issue."
And while the question remains the same, it's being asked in new ways, as the physics-based technological breakthroughs of the 20th century give way to 21st-century biotechnology developments that deal with the nature of life itself: cloning, the linking of machine intelligence to human thought ("downloading" consciousness into computers), and the humanization of robots, to name a few.
"The prospect of machines having a big influence on the human condition is quite large," says Dr. Gregory Benford, a professor of physics at University of California, Irvine. "This next century is the biological century. The essential issue a century from now will be the definition of what is human and of the integrity of the human species."
Today, everyone's an expert
It's a conversation that won't be limited to scientists, as the forums for debate about the pros and cons of technology continue to be more inclusive. In the past, notes Neil Postman of New York University, sociologists or anthropologists who wanted to critique its effects were told by scientists, "You really don't know about the technology."
But today, says Mr. Postman, the debate is far more open. Sociologists, ethicists, and theologians regularly comment on the potentially negative implications of technologies such as genetic engineering, he notes, and more people are likely to raise questions about whether gains outweigh possible dangers.
"There is a sense with cloning and biotechnology that we don't actually know what we're messing with," says Postman, who chairs NYU's department of culture and communication. "There's a consciousness of the Faustian bargain we're always making with technology. That is to say, it giveth and it taketh away. There are always conversations now about what it might be taking away."