The future stalks us. It doesn’t appear out of the bushes saying, ‘Hello, this is the future. Do you mind pointing me in the direction of the loo?’ it creeps up on us gradually, almost imperceptibly. In the same way that we don’t notice ourselves ageing until one day, quite out of the blue, we realise we’re old and grey; we only notice the impact of progress when things have already changed beyond all recognition. Only then do we begin looking backwards, searching for clues about how we got to where we are.
We’re in the midst of one of those retrospective moments right now. With technology more abundant, affordable and intelligent than ever before, there’s a burgeoning sense that humanity’s creations are making humanity obsolete, or at least look a little dim in comparison. In the 1960s, when the idea of laundry-folding robots and intelligent ovens first entered the popular imagination, there was one question on everyone’s lips “Can a machine think?”
It was a conundrum posited in the 1950s when Alan Turing proposed that a machine could be taught in much the same way as a child. As AI researchers began o use computers to translate between languages and recognise images and understand instructions, the idea that computers would inevitably develop the ability to think and act for themselves began to enter the mainstream culture. The most obvious example of AI anxiety in the 1960s comes in the form of the onboard computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
While we’re still a way away from developing sentient machines like HAL, many of the technologies in 2001: A Space Odyssey are very recognisable to today’s Apple users. As Christopher Nolan explained in a BBC interview: “Ten years ago, the ideas of artificial intelligence [in 2001: A Space Odyssey] seemed a bit quaint, they seemed a bit passe. But then, over the past ten years, things have sailed back very much towards AI, the idea of talking assistants, you know, with Alexa and Siri and all these electronic assistants that you talk you, and the idea of AI: it’s all come back massively.
In retrospect, it seems incredible that Kubrick was able to predict future technologies so accurately. Video calling, tablets, electronic assistants: they’re all there in 2001. Of course, to assume that Kubrick was some sort of oracle would be to ignore that fictional depictions of the future determine the shape that future subsequently takes in reality.
“You watch these guys with these screens, and they’re iPads for all intents and purposes,” Nolan continued. “So, how much much the people making the technology of today have been influenced by the film and how much of the film was just predicting where things would naturally go is impossible to disentangle because 2001 has had a massive influence on the way in which we’ve imagined the future to be.”