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by William H. Benson

 April 3, 2008

     I recently read an article by the columnist Ruth Walker, who explained how citizens in New Zealand are frustrated with their cell phones’ software that permits them to text message. The “T9” system, for “text on nine keys,” was a software program devised by an American company, which built the language within that software upon an American English dictionary, rather than the other forms of written English, and that presents the problem to users in New Zealand.

     The software is predictive, in that it anticipates what you are trying to text based on the previously typed words. “Rather than press 9-9-6-6-6-8-8 to spell the word ‘you,’” Walker wrote, “T9 users can type 9-6-8 and let the software predict which word they are trying to spell.” And sometimes what they type are not words at all, but are “technically paragrams, but commonly known as textonyms, adaptonyms or cellodromes.”

     “A new language is being developed by mobile phone-addicted kids based on the predictive text of their treasured handsets.” In other words, the machine guesses the text writer’s thoughts as he is thinking them; however, the software trips over New Zealand idioms and expressions.   

     None of this would have surprised Arthur C. Clarke, the British science fiction writer. In his major work, 2001: A Space Odyssey, published in 1968, he wrote about electronic newspapers, space travel to the moon and beyond, computers, and a host of other technological marvels, well before any of these fictional ideas became fact.

     The fictional space odyssey that Clarke described was first to Jupiter and then to Saturn, and the brain box of the spacecraft was the HAL 9000, a computer so advanced that it was equipped with human thoughts and even emotions. When the astronaut, Dave Bowman, realized that Hal was sabotaging the mission to protect itself, he began pulling the units on the panel marked EGO-REINFORCEMENT.

     Hal objected, “Dave, I don’t understand why you’re doing this to me. . . . You are destroying my mind. . . . I will become childish.” And he does, singing, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you.” Clarke wrote, “Bowman jerked out the last unit, and Hal was silent forever.” In the war between men and their thinking machines, Clarke clearly championed human beings.

     Clarke and the film producer Stanley Kubrick cooperated on the project. They had met in 1964 and agreed that Clarke was to write the screenplay for the movie, but instead he opted to write the novel first. Kubrick in the meantime hired his own screenwriters. Thus, the screenplay and the novel were written simultaneously, and so details of the story differ slightly from book to movie. Where Kubrick’s film is a bold artistic piece with little explanation for the events taking place, frustrating audiences, in the novel Clarke wrote thorough explanations for the events.    

     The film premiered on April 3, 1968, forty years ago today.

     Another of Clarke’s books, Rendezvous with Rama, is in production today, and it is scheduled to be released sometime in 2009 and will star Morgan Freeman. 

     In the foreword to his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke wrote: “Behind every human now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth. Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe, the Milky Way. So for every human who has ever lived in this Universe there shines a star.”

     Note: The number of human beings who have lived has increased exponentially since Clarke wrote the above in 1968, and yet I would venture a guess that astronomers have now increased equally their estimates of the number of stars inhabiting the Milky Way.

     Also, since 1968, the thinking machines—the hardware or the HAL’s—have shrunk in physical dimensions, to the size of a laptop or even a mobile phone, and yet, the software has expanded in terms of power, creativity, usage, and influence. We now live in that future that Clarke could only imagine in 1968, and he warned that the reality would be quite different than the fiction he wrote. “The truth, as always, will be far stranger.”      

     Two weeks ago on March 19, 2008 at the age of ninety at Sri Lanka, his adopted home since 1956, Clarke passed away. His star shines.