2010 is here. Like 1984 and 2001, 2010 is famous thanks to science fiction. When a once-futuristic year becomes yet another date on the calendar, the hopes and fears of fiction are compared to our current reality.
The book 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke arrived in 1982, the era when Pac Man ruled the video arcade and Apple was making the IIc computer. The movie version, 2010: The Year We Made Contact, arrived in theaters in 1984, the year of the first Macintosh computer arrived in stores and James Cameron unleashed the futuristic nightmare The Terminator.
2010 continued the story of the 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke’s novel made into the mind-bending film by Stanley Kubrick. 2010 travels to the place where 2001 ended: above the gaseous planet Jupiter, where the spaceship Discovery orbits in icy quiet with the neurotic HAL 9000 computer powered down. An American crew travels about the Russian spaceship Leonov to reactivate Discovery, restore HAL 9000, and unravel the mystery of the giant alien monolith that lurks nearby.
What I find striking about the real 2010 versus Clarke’s and film director Peter Hyams visions of 2010 are the elements that did come true.
While humans are a long way off from a manned mission to the outer planets of our solar system, unmanned space missions have sent back amazing images of both Jupiter and Saturn. Probes have sent back photos from orbit and dropped into the roaring atmosphere of Jupiter and the frozen surface of Titan. Recent photos of Titan have revealed the first glint of sunlight off of a liquid lake.
The fictional 2010 was still divided by the Cold War, with Russia and the United States are reluctant partners in space exploration as nuclear war looms. The International Space Station orbits over Earth today, built by a worldwide team of space explorers. American and Russian spacecraft dock with the ISS on a regular basis.
But what about artificial intelligence? Where is the real life HAL 9000? Perhaps the closest we have to HAL is a service we take for granted now: Google.
While Google doesn’t have a giant red camera eye and or speak with a soothing voice like HAL, it does provoke both awe and fear. Google and its services offer a world of information to users. Google’s critics wonder what Google does with vast seas of information it gathers and if its growing power will expand or restrict the frontiers of the internet. If HAL 9000 was invented tomorrow, I suspect the reaction to a newly built HAL would be similar to the debate over Google.
The part of the story of 2010 that stands out for me is the uncertainty of technology. Can the crew fully entrust a reactivated HAL 9000 with their lives? Will their spacecraft protect them without burning up during a fiery trip through Jupiter’s upper atmosphere? Human ingenuity and technology have their limits in this adventure and they are dwarfed by the plans of alien beings who are behind the mysterious monolith.
While the novel and movie of 2010 is about an elite group of astronauts facing the dangers and wonders of outer space, we are all the explorers of the real 2010. Like the astronauts, our technology is taking us to new places, but the question remains if we fully trust it.
It’s 2010. Things are going to happen. I hope they will be wonderful.