by Lafe Low

Q&A With David Kennard — The Effects of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on Modern Technology

Sep 01, 20013 mins

In his forthcoming TV special 2001: HAL’s Legacy (premiering Nov. 27 on PBS), Emmy award-winning documentary producer David Kennard looks at the effect 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has had on today’s technology and technologists. To hear the complete interview with Kennard, go to

CIO: To what extent has Stanley Kubrick’s film?based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel?influenced actual technology?

Kennard: It stimulated the imaginations of kids going into the [artificial intelligence] field. It set the bar so high, [it stated that] until you make a machine that can do what HAL can do, you ain’t made it. The film portrayed a creature, HAL, with which we would simply have to learn to live. That strikes me as one of the most important messages of the film. It isn’t a case of if, it’s a case of when we get machines that are so powerfully intelligent, we will have to work out a modus vivendi. A large part of what HAL could do, [current technology] can do, but we can’t get them all onto one platform. Putting them all together is going to be the real tough thing.

Do you know of particular scientists who were inspired by 2001?

One of the most interesting and influential is Rodney Brooks, the director of the MIT AI lab. HAL stimulated [Brooks] to go into the field. He says, “I have no doubt in principle that we can make a machine as intelligent as a human being.” The problem is, in practice are we smart enough to make anything smarter than ourselves? In the course of trying, we will actually shed more light on how the human brain works.

What science fiction do you find particularly influential?

Jules Verne’s work back in the 19th century was very important because he made a voyage to the moon or a submarine believable. Once you’ve made something believable, you’ve gone a long way toward making it inevitable. That’s the role of the best science fiction. Once people can comfortably hold it in their minds, then the scientific imagination will start working on it. Two types of science fiction are compelling. One is the Arthur C. Clarke type. In terms of the scientific and practical environment in which things take place, it is believable. It doesn’t break the laws of physics as we know them. The other type of first-class science fiction writer is Ursula Le Guin. She describes the likely effects on human beings of being in wholly different environments. If it were possible, for example, to live 1,000 years, what would the implications be for our ethics, our sense of morality or our parenting? Those kinds of questions can help us understand ourselves better.