Is the truth stranger than science fiction? Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted back in 1968, we've been waiting to see if the late director Stanley Kubrick's vision of the future would pan out.
And, though it isn't immediately obvious, 2001 is very much like 2001.
In the movie, airlines offered flights to the moon. And today, space tourism is hot and happening! Well, sort of. Later this year, a company called Encounter 2001 LLC plans to launch a spaceship carrying writings, drawings, photos and DNA from paying Earth citizens, presumably for green aliens to someday find.
Actual people, however, will be the cargo with Space Adventures. Currently, they provide earth-bound educational travel experiences relating to space, but by 2003, they'll be performing test flights, and by 2005, Space Adventures will be blasting off at least once per week-not into orbit, but high enough where you'll be weightless and able to clearly see the curvature of the Earth.
It'll only cost $98,000 for the 30- to 90-minute trip, preceded by four days of intensive training, including experiencing zero gravity and wearing a pressure suit.
Will they eventually offer longer trips? "Absolutely," says Chris Faranetta, space flight program manager for Space Adventures, founded in 1997 by aerospace engineer Eric Anderson. "We plan on going higher and higher, then all the way to the moon."
At press time, Space Adventures had 130 reservations lined up. By 2010, they plan on taking tourists into actual orbit. "It'll be difficult to get started," says Faranetta, "but the opportunities are huge."
Other opportunities are going to be very small. Nanotechnology was hardly understood in 1968, but if it had been, perhaps the forward-thinking Kubrick would have shown spaceships with barely visible microthrusters instead of huge rocket engines. That's the flight of the future, says nanotechnology expert and Oklahoma University professor Gerard Newman.
The question is, How will nanotechnology-the study of creating materials out of atoms and molecules, enabling scientists to make smaller material for a variety of purposes, including filling it with more information-affect you? Imagine a computer the size of a sugar cube with 1 million times the capacity of our current PCs. Just think of the rent you'll save.
"Nanotechnology will have a big impact on the world," says Newman. Indeed, the government is taking it seriously, as evidenced by President Clinton's proposal to double spending for research on nano-technology to $500 million. Nanotechnology predictions include not only materials that are 10 times stronger than steel because they've been constructed one atom at a time, but also an array of abilities that may allow the removal of the smallest pollutants from the water and air or the creation of color-shifting nanoparticles capable of blending into the background to make objects seem almost invisible.
Near the end of 2001, our hero Dave Bowman ages rapidly. Today, we don't have to worry about that so much. In fact, one of the most interesting employee perks of the year might be what Rhythm & Hues Studios Inc. offers: plastic surgery. The Los Angeles-based animation and visual-effects studio offers each employee $5,000 in plastic and reconstructive surgery over a lifetime, and $15,000 annually in dental and vision work.
But the best evidence that 2001 is looking a lot like 2001 may be HAL.
HAL 9000 was the chess-playing, incredibly crafty supercomputer on board the spacecraft Discovery. Today, in a way similar to how humans spoke to HAL 9000, consumers can speak to their own HAL, or Home Automated Living, the name of a company and a concept. For years, you've heard of "smart houses," right? Those are homes that will someday start your coffee, open the garage door, take phone messages, wake you up for breakfast and turn on your morning news. Well, someday is here.
HAL is the brainchild of the company's president, Tim Shriver, who started HAL in 1998 and began marketing his product during summer 1999. The concept is simple: Load some software into your computer, and a wire from the PC to a wall outlet will do the rest. The software reads the entire electric power grid; you can call in from outside the house and tell it exactly what to do.
It costs anywhere from $400 to $1,000, depending on how advanced your system is. Right now, there's a HALbasic, HALdeluxe, HAL2000 and HALpro.
"We didn't automatically think of the connection to the movie," says HAL's George Snyder, "but everybody who has seen the movie relates to the name."
And will there ever be a BAL (business automated living, that is)? Yes, and no. Snyder says that before the year is up, you can expect HAL to expand into home offices with its Virtual Voice Assistant. It will attempt to replicate an administrative assistant-for instance, when an important fax comes through, it'll telephone to tell you. There are no plans for offices to be equipped like HAL, but there have been discussions of having HAL appear in hotel chains, allowing travelers to do things like stretch out on the bed and say, "Dim the lights and give me the stock report, and then read me the news," and watch the room do just that.
And if you're interested in the home-controlled aftermarket, it's time for you to start finessing your business plan. Predicts Snyder, "In the next few years, these home-controlled products will be as ubiquitous in the home as the remote control is in the home theatre. Who would think about sitting down to watch TV now without having the clicker in your hand? You can't do it. The actions you do in a house will be unthinkable several years from now."
But as Snyder himself points out, at the end of 2001, HAL goes amok, killing four astronauts and then turning his wrath on Bowman. Snyder laughs at the very idea. "We like to tell people, 'This is the way HAL should have been.' "
- Home Automated Living LLC., www.automatedliving.com
- Rhythm & Hues Studios Inc., www.rhythm.com
- Space Adventures Ltd., (888) 85-SPACE, www.spaceadventures.com
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.