Feature

2001: A Space Odyssey at 50 - Kubrick’s epic continues to both inspire and inhibit brands

Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is oft credited in all its glorious, futuristic technicolour for having prophesied tech like Amazon Alexa and Space X, but 50 years after its release what lessons have brands – and consumers – taken from the cinematic epic?

The atmospheric opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey depicts earth, the moon and the sun slowly aligning against a pitch-black canvas. One of the most famous introductions in cinema, the scene is scored by Richard Stauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, which in all its clustered moments of harmony and dissonance has inadvertently come to symbolise the movie’s complex influence over technology in the 50 years since it first hit screens.

As the film celebrates its 50th anniversary, there’s no doubt it prophesised the voice recognition capabilities we see in Alexa now, and indeed the Telsa Roadster Space X launch looked like a scene straight from the film: but some experts believe it to have both inspired, and inhibited, the technology consumers take for granted today, especially machine learning.

The imprint the masterpiece has made on pop-culture has been explored a million times over. It's influenced everything from the creation of Alien’s android Ash to ice cream ads, noughties Jennifer Lopez videos to The Simpsons Halloween specials.

The movie’s sentient antagonist, Hal 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) usually features in any lampoons, his recognisable red-hued lens burning bright.

Less probed, though, is how the movie which came to set the standard for subsequent dystopian sci-fi cinema and TV has impacted perceptions of AI, and thus the brands trying to embed it into their everyday lives.

For Dave Coplin – 2001 fan, Crystal Maze winner and the former Microsoft chief envisioning officer who set out on his own to found The Envisioners, a company dedicated to helping advertisers better embrace emerging tech like AI – the legacy of A Spacey Odyssey is something he believes the digital and advertising industry has to “fight every day”.

This battle usually pertains to the misrepresentation of AI as a sinister force, says Coplin: “When we talk to what I would call regular human beings, ie people who aren’t geeks like me, if I mention AI they either conjure up the image of The Terminator or HAL 9000.”

Fantastical futurism

2001 is a strange beast. Clarke and Kubrick wrote the novel and screenplay simultaneously. There are some minor differences, including the fact the book is more explicit in its description of Spacecraft Discovery One’s voyage, whereas Kubrick’s take is more cryptic. In the book, the final destination of mission pilots and scientists Dr David Bowman and Dr Frank Poole is Saturn, in the movie it’s Jupiter – the only reason for the switch being that the special effects teams found great difficulty in creating Saturn’s rings.

To mark the film’s semicentennial year, Warner Bros is prepping for the release of a 70mm “unrestored” version, which with no digital edits aims to be as close to the 1968 original as possible.

50 years on it’s difficult to believe the fantastically futuristic set design was conceived in the 60s against the backdrop of the US racing against the Soviets to put a man on the moon (which conspiracy theorists would have you believe Kubrick himself was involved in).

The filmmaker even enlisted former Nasa illustrator Harry Lange to bring his interstellar vision to life. Speaking of the process, Douglas Trumbull – the young visual effects supervisor tasked with designing lunar landscapes and miniature versions of the ill-fated Space Discovery One rocket – suggested as much research and development went into the project as did to get man on the moon.

“That ship itself is a representation of what every brand is trying to achieve in the internet of things (IoT) and still something we are chasing to implement whether with the connected home, office or car,” says Karen Boswell, head of innovation at creative agency Adam&Eve/DDB.

“Every brand worth its future salt is thinking about design for ease around interaction,” she continues, and the bar set by the Discovery One is a vision “most struggle to even comprehend”.

A recent study revealed widespread IoT adoption in the businesses world, with 85% of global businesses planning to implement the tech by 2019, but the Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF) claims that 60% of consumers worldwide are “worried” about connected devices, showing a completely seamless future is far off.

However, within Kubrick and Clarke’s fictional, floating IoT hub there lies a multitude of palpable comparisons to draw between the tech represented in the film versus the tech sold and used by brands today.

The tablets used by the astronauts, for instance, resemble early versions of the iPad. Meanwhile, Tesla’s concept for commercial space travel is also reflected in Kubrick’s prediction that the now defunct Pan Am would run a regular commuter service between planet Earth and space.

Skype, Apple’s Facetime, Snapchat and the plethora of other messaging services are represented when Dr Heywood Floyd calls his daughter via video phone from the space station.

“Compared to other space-themed movies and shows of the time, the tech and aesthetic featured in 2001 came from technical experts rather than film artists,” says WCRS director of innovation and technology Dino Burbidge.

“In essence, function over form – simplicity instead of theatre," he adds. "Tech in the current era is also dictated more by function than by form. The UI of many apps is almost invisible compared to the utility and the intelligence behind their features.”

I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that

The most obviously comparable of all the futuristic configurations, however, as Coplin already touched on, are the parallels that can be drawn between Hal and the AI-powered voice assistants of today, including Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and the Google Home.

Boswell says Hal is “clearly” a Siri concept, turbocharged with a Watson brain, but acknowledges he can be compared to the Amazon Echo and Google Home too.

For WCRS’ Burbidge, it’s also curious that all AI speakers that sit in today’s homes are circular – “with more than a passing resemblance to Hal”. The Nest thermostat, for instance, mirrors Hal’s form, part of the desire for tech to appear simple, organic and non-threatening.

In the movie, Hal is capable not only of speech but also lip reading, automated reasoning and interpreting emotional behaviours.

Monotonous in tone and razor sharp, Hal 9000 also has the prestigious accolade of making it on to IGN’s Top 100 Movie Villains list.

When the humans on board opt to jeopardise the mission by pulling Hal’s chord [spoiler alert] the machine kills Dr Poole and traps Dr (Dave) Bowman outside the ship, but not before terminating the lives of three other crew members. In retrospect, the machine is logically trying to strike the balance between its computed need to complete the mission and relay accurate information, all while withholding insight from Poole and Bowman.

Hal’s exchange with Bowman after he asks him to open the pod bay doors (“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”) is usually citied as an example of what happens when AI turns dangerous.

However, Coplin believes it’s actually Hal’s legacy that’s potentially dangerous for brands, restrictive for consumers, in a world that’s edging closer towards using AI for a deluge of functions and services.

“[The popculture around this], does us such a disservice, and before I even get to the point where I can explain how brilliant AI could be for our lives, I have to wade through all these reasons why it’s not going to destroy human life as we know it, and so the legacy for me is something I’d love to overcome; people need to understand that technology isn’t going to destroy us if we do the right thing.”

Amid the Black Mirrors and Westerworlds that glitter on our screens, Coplin argues that when it comes to how tech is represented in society, it’s time for culture and brands to start creating some positive role models.

“With the exception of Star Trek, and possibly Star Wars, every other depiction of technology in science fiction is typically a dystopian view,” he muses, noting that one of the things the Star Trek series in particular has been good at is never portraying the imagined technology as something malicious or malevolent.

“It was allowed to fail and cause peril to the protagonist but in itself it was a neutral force, it’s not a negative force,” he adds.

Burbidge, too, agrees the onus is on humans to create their own positive depictions but stresses there are already some that are just plain ignored – what about Pixar’s cosmic garbage-compounding robot Wall-E? Kitt from Knight Rider? Holly from Red Dwarf?

“Humans tend to project their insecurities and fears onto anything that they don't understand,” she adds, pointing towards what cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell termed as "moral panic".

He goes on: “Steam trains were supposed to melt passengers if they went over 50mph. Telephones were supposed to cause possession. Space probes were supposed to signal to aliens we're open to invasion. The internet was supposed to trigger world war three. Robots were supposed to enslave us. AI will take our jobs and, well, also kill us. You get the idea.

"Each new technology was reflected in the films, radio and literature of the day. Metropolis, War of the World, Terminator, War Games, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so on. They were popular as they articulated the natural insecurities everyone feels when confronted by the new.”

Do brands have the power to shift perceptions?

Current attitudes towards AI vindicate Burbidge's theory that while it’s come on leaps and bounds, there’s still anxiety around unchartered tech. But whether, as per Coplin’s take, it’s because of a lack of positive "role models" remains to be seen.

A recent in-depth study by the Royal Society found that central to consumer concerns about the use of machine learning was a fear that they would be “harmed” in the process, either directly as a result of interacting with a human-like system (think Sophia the robot) or as a result of a failure of technology (like a driverless car crash).

Adobe, meanwhile, claims that globally 60% of consumers are concerned about the criminal use of AI technologies and the job losses machine learning could impart. Around half (48%) are worried about machines making “bad choices” and 40% are anxious about accidents involving humans.

For brands though, the outlook isn’t entirely bleak, there is a platform for them to reverse the man v machine stereotypes perpetrated by 2001 and the sci-fi epics it inspired.

“Brands have got a phenomenal opportunity that sits in front of them,” Coplin says. “They can be a part of this story and they can help people want to aspire to more as a result of using their technology… if they can be that positive rather than negative role model, and not fixate on the technology but what it enables instead, they’ll get there.”

Boswell is less enthused, noting that the reach and longevity of film far penetrates what brands can counter in the next decade, or two.

A good start, she argues, would be an open approach from tech platforms and advertisers to involve audiences in beta programs, and a focus on those willing to adopt rather than the naysayers.

"The one overall thing brands need to live up to is something I quote Arthur C Clarke on all the time, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'," she adds.

"Every brand that wants to succeed beyond the next five years will need to leverage the convergence of data and technology to enhance what they have and not use tech as the ‘jazz hands’ distraction from what they’re not doing properly."

For Burbidge, brands just don’t stand a change of dismantling the dystopian vision of AI, and advertisers that think they can are delusional.

He says: “Who's the competition in this battle? The military, big industry, governments, rogue states, rogue oligarchs and all the way down to lone hackers and inventors in their sheds. A rogue AI isn't a brand perception issue to be fixed, it's a viable option for some.

“Can AI cause a war? Yes. Can AI make you redundant? Yes. Can AI get questionable politicians elected? Yes. Can AI form the story arc of a compelling disaster movie? Yes. It's no more a brand's job to fight for a positive view of AI as it is for a brand to use "nice" robots on their assembly lines to counter the military robots in Terminator.”

After all, dystopian nightmares make good stories and AI is a strong lead.

“Deal with it,” continues Burbidge,“with every good disaster movie there's a thread of truth. That's what makes them compelling. In a few years' time, we may obsess about dystopian nightmares caused by unregulated genetic modification or the lack of honey bees. Who knows.”