2001 is not just another year. For over three decades, those four digits symbolized the future, and triggered hopes, dreams and fears about what lay over the horizon. Brilliant though it was, Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination and Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of life in the 21st century have also missed the mark. We have had no contact with alien civilizations, there are no permanent outposts in space and artificial intelligence has produced nothing like HAL 9000, the ship’s computer that goes berserk and has to be unplugged. (To be fair, Mr. Clarke says the book was a vision, not a sketch.)
By most standards, life in our 21st century is decidedly more pedestrian than that portrayed in the movie. We are still Earth-bound and our computers rarely respond to voice commands; most of us are happy to find real intelligence in daily life; AI? Forget it.
But if our world is vastly different from the feverish imaginings of Mssrs. Clarke and Kubrick, it is still a fascinating place — and certainly when compared to the dark ages of, say, five years ago. Today’s mobile phones and the resources they put at our fingertips, courtesy of the Internet, are more Star Trek than 2001.
More importantly, they are not just toys. Well, there are toys — take a bow wow, Aibo — but the novelty of information technology is gone. There may well be a gadget of the day, but we expect technology to be present in every part of our daily lives. From the home to office, at home or on the road, we demand a seamless Web. Being online all the time is no longer a perk, it is a priority.
One British researcher, Mr. Kevin Warwick, of Reading University has allowed IT to get under his skin — literally. Mr. Warwick inserted a small sensor in his arm, which is linked to a computer. He plans to install another sensor that will record signals from his central nervous system, which he hopes can then be used to move his body as well.
Mr. Warwick’s experiments take us to the border that has been crossed only in science fiction: the one between humankind and machines. Unlike HAL, which is pure AI, Mr. Warwick’s experiment makes the “cyborg” — part man and part machine — a distinct possibility. He concedes that his work is “a dangerous game,” but even that blithe concession to the obvious fails to capture the enormity of the project.
Attempts to bridge the divide between silicon- and carbon-based life forms raise scientific, philosophical and ethical issues for which we have shown precious little inclination or capacity. Indeed, the persistence of another divide — that between rich and poor — gives us reason to wonder if our boundless creativity and energy are best aimed at other targets.
Yes, the IT revolution is a wondrous thing, as the 276 million Internet users — a number that grows by about 150,000 people each day — will attest. The mind boggles at the prospect of navigating the 1.5 billion Web pages that exist; this editorial is now part of the 2 million more that are added to the total each day. Those are impressive numbers, but they come from 5 percent of the world’s population. There are more Internet hosts in New York state than in all of continental Africa; there are more in Finland than Latin America and the Caribbean. Fifty-five countries account for 99 percent of all IT-spending.
We are reminded daily of the need to bridge that digital divide. It is a noble objective, and a goal well worth achieving — eventually. Now, however, there are considerably more pressing priorities. Our fascination with and fixation on the IT revolution obscures some very simple truths about life for most of this planet’s inhabitants.
Mr. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and someone with a powerful stake in that revolution, conceded as much in a speech last year. “The world’s poorest 2 billion people desperately need health care, not laptops,” said Mr. Gates. These people are, he said, “just trying to stay alive.” I-mode, third-generation wireless, broadband will have no impact on them; clean water, electricity and medicine will.
That grim reality does not comport with our preferred image of life at the dawn of the 21st century. Our daily concerns tend to be of a more mundane sort, although they certainly seem every bit as serious. But for one-third of the world’s population, over 2 billion people, life is more like Survivor than Star Wars. They will not see, nor know, the genius of 2001. They are just as likely, however, to look to the stars at night and contemplate what lies beyond their reach, in time and space.
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