2001: A User Experience Odyssey

Mario Mendez

Digital Media Designer

In 1968, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and film maker Stanley Kubrick released one of the most important masterpieces of science fiction of all time, both in print and in movie form. 2001: A Space Odyssey became almost instantly a cult phenomenon thanks in part to its bold vision of what the human civilisation could achieve in 30 years and the visual and storytelling poetry in which it communicated its point.

Robot Future User Experience

Although in 2012 we are still very far away from some of its predictions, ie. commercial trips to the moon and human missions to Jupiter, Clarke and Kubrick’s vision of how we will interact with technology in the future make some interesting points:

The most important one is how the crew members of the Discovery One, the spaceship headed for Jupiter, interact with HAL 9000, the ship’s computer. The computer talks with the crew like it is just another human on the ship, having casual conversations, responding with quirky remarks and even playing chess. The computer is even programmed to lose sometimes, so that humans find it less frustrating and fun to play with it.

Current technologies, like Siri in Apple iOS, have started to resemble HAL 9000’s Voice Interaction feature, although they are still far away from being almost indistinguishable from a real human. Ultimately, HAL 9000 was able to spy the human crew and decided to overrule one of their orders, in interest of the mission’s main objective, adding judgment to this impressive Artificial Intelligence.

Another aspect Clarke and Kubrick predicted and became true was the way people were entertained in long flights. The back of the head-rests in the shuttle feature small TV screens, something that wouldn’t actually be introduced to airplanes until the 1980s.

However, the single thing that the film gets most wrong about the future is the video call sequence. In 2001: A Space Odyssey there are no personal mobile communication devices on display at all. Not only does one of the characters step into a booth to make a call, he also has to remember the number to physically dial – something unthinkable today in an era of contact address books and speed-dial.

Nevertheless, the most important aspect 2001 predicts, in my opinion, is the way we will interact (if we ever do) with an alien civilisation. We can’t prove this one yet, of course, but Clarke and Kubrick contacted astronomer Carl Sagan about how this encounter might most likely occur. Sagan, while acknowledging Kubrick’s desire to use actors to portray humanoid aliens for convenience’s sake, argued that alien life forms were unlikely to bear any resemblance to terrestrial life, and that to do so would introduce “at least an element of falseness” to the film. Sagan proposed that the film suggest, rather than depict, extraterrestrial superintelligence. Kubrick hinted at the nature of the mysterious unseen alien race in 2001 by suggesting, in a 1968 interview, that given millions of years of evolution, they progressed from biological beings to “immortal machine entities”, and then into “beings of pure energy and spirit”; beings with “limitless capabilities and ungraspable intelligence.”

So there you have it,  that’s why Kubrick designed the final part of the movie to feel like a very confusing acid trip.That’s how most likely an encounter with an alien civilisation would look and feel like, according to Carl Sagan, who would later write a novel (Contact) about that very theme. The cultural and aesthetic significance of 2001 remains one of the most relevant films of all time, even now, 44 years after its release.