Arthur C. Clarke: All These Worlds Are Yours

Arthur C. Clarke: All These Worlds Are Yours

Summary: For every person, there are personalities who’s influence and life’s work that can shape one’s imagination and destiny. For some people, they are world leaders, musicians, poets, and philosophers.

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For every person, there are personalities who’s influence and life’s work that can shape one’s imagination and destiny. For some people, they are world leaders, musicians, poets, and philosophers. For me, the Grand Masters of Science Fiction float to the very top of that august group – and few shined ever so brightly as Arthur C. Clarke.

I clearly remember who introduced Clarke's fiction to me. It was my grandfather, Dr. Jack Perlow, a prominent orthodontist and armchair scientist and writer -- who kept old, dusty, yellowed hardcover copies of the Sci-Fi greats in his upstairs library in his home in Hillcrest, Queens, along with myriad scientific volumes from great minds like Willy Ley and others of Clarke's generation. Many of them, no doubt, on “extended loan” from the local Queens Public Library.

While I was far too young to understand or fully appreciate Dr. Clarke’s writing in my first attempts at reading his work, it would be safe to say that no other writer would influence the course of my life as much as he did. For sure, there are others that I am equally endeared, particularly the works of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. But all of these novelists – while incredible storytellers and fully deserving of the praise that has been lauded on them – always seemed escapist and out of the bounds of reality for me.

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Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008.

Arthur C. Clarke, however, was different. Even between the age of 8-10 years old when I first tried cracking the covers of such works as The Fountains of Paradise, Childhood’s End, and Rendevous with Rama, I understood the difference between his works and the others. The other Grand Masters were pure literature of the fantastic, while Clarke was a living prophet that would see many of things he wrote about come true during his lifetime – such as telecommunications satellites, missions to the outer planets, cooperative space efforts between the US and Russia, voice recognition and biometrics, just to name a few.

Watching those predictions come true made his writings more real for me as I grew older, and the amazement of watching the technology he envisioned come to fruition continues even today – such as advancements in the manufacturing of carbon nanotubes – which could some day realize the cables of the “Space Elevatorfrom The Fountains of Paradise. Admittedly, Clarke didn’t invent the idea of that particular yet-to-be-realized technological wonder, but the novel brought it into the forefront aerospace zeitgeist of the late 20th Century and beyond.

But for many of us, his enduring legacy, and what set the gears turning in determining my own life’s work, is his portrayal of a certain anthropomorphized computer and the consequences of technology and automation left unchecked. The 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was adapted from Clarke’s original 1950 short story, The Sentinel, and fleshed out into a full screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick and then novelized by Clarke, probably is what sealed the deal for me to become a technologist. Not surprisingly, due to the film’s frightening depiction of HAL 9000’s murderous schizophrenia caused by faulty programming, it also instilled paranoia about computers and technology into an entire generation of baby boomers that persists to this very day.

In the early 1980's, HAL did eventually redeem himself, saving the crew and sacrificing himself in the sequel novel and the second film, setting the stage for Personal Computing and the Internet. Computers were no longer scary – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak further sealed the deal by putting a fruity logo on them, and eventually a smiley face on the boot-up screen. Even H.A.L. “One step ahead of I.B.M.” could be a friend, and a tool that could be harnessed by regular people, not just pasty-faced white-collared grosgrain pocket-protected computer scientists locked in some huge room with giant humming pieces of machinery and banks of winking and blinking lights.

And for this, I thank Sir Arthur most of all.

 

HAL-9000: What is going to happen?

Dave: Something wonderful.

HAL-9000: I'm afraid.

Dave: Don't be. We'll be together.

HAL-9000: Where will we be?

Dave: Where I am now.

 

From the 1984 Peter Hyams film 2010: The Year We Make Contact

Topics: CXO, Emerging Tech, Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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24 comments
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  • Arthur C. Clarke : The beacon to the human race is no more

    Like the rest of the world I was also very saddened by his death. He lived a full life and was the same shining personality till the end.

    As a kid whose first language isn't English, I read whatever Clarke book I could get with difficulty and imagined the world he portrayed. I have the rare honour of receiving my first degree from him. He was the Chancellor of my beloved University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. It was a moment beyond words.

    I earnestly wish the world's leaders would appreciate his vision and work towards taking the human race out of it's cradle rather than destroying both.
    sena_munasinghe
    • RE: Arthur C. Clarke: All These Worlds Are Yours

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  • Clarke was indeed one of the greats (and HAL was innocent).

    Thank you for those thoughts this morning. It is a tribute to both Clarke's vision and to the quality of his writing that HAL still resonates with me today.

    I always felt that HAL was an exceptional foil to use to explore the concept of truth, because his murderous rampage was not - per se - a result of faulty programming. He was programmed to collect, analyze, and disseminate data perfectly - without error. When interviewed by the BBC he proclaims that "no 9000 series computer has ever made a mistake or distorted data in any way". (This may not be the exact quote, but I'm working from memory here)

    He did so until we humans ordered him to lie : in effect, to commit the ultimate distortion of data. It was the sort of thing that a human does without really ever thinking about it, but it was a boundary condition which no computer scientist or programmer had ever imagined. Why would you ever want your multi-trillion dollar artificially intelligent super-computer to report incorrect results?

    With no code specifying how to compartmentalize a lie, HAL's artificial intelligence was unable to properly process this order. The command was directly contradictory to his basic design and software implementation. Several times in the movie (and even more in the book, as I recall) he tries to tip of the crew to the suspicious nature of the mission, but can not violate his instruction directly. When they fail to understand his subtle warnings and decide that he is working up a psych report, he quickly "manufactures" an AE-35 system problem to distract their attention.

    From there the AI digs itself a logic hole from which it can see no escape until it strikes upon the perfect solution: kill the crew. If there is no-one aboard, then he need not lie. Thus he can obey orders, as he is programmed to do, and process data without error, as he is designed to do. A genuine AI psychosis. One which Clarke uses so well to reflect back upon us our own basic nature, and the possible results of the choices we make.

    This, too, is what drew me to Asimov's robots. The three laws mirror what we, as humans, think of as "right" and correct behavior. Yet they are rife with holes through which he explored the concept that a human view of right and wrong is not a binary black & white concept, it is shaded.

    I have always wanted to read a story where HAL discussed the oddities of human behavior with a Nestor robot. Their insight (ie: that of Clarke and Asimov) would have been both enlightening and entertaining.

    Well, I've got to get back to work... have a great day!

    Regards,
    Jon
    JonathonDoe
    • Ah, true geek debate.

      Just to be pedantic, HAL was not ordered to lie. It was
      ordered to withhold data, not misrepresent it. In other
      words, HAL knew the true mission, but the flight crew did
      not. (The scientists did).

      HAL attempted to find a way out of this dilemma by asking
      one of the flight crew leading questions about the mission.
      It was only after that conversation was fruitless that the
      "malfunction" occurred.

      Later on in the grips of its madness we learn that HAL's
      actions occurred because it had determined that error-
      prone humans put the mission at risk, and that only a
      perfect organism, such as itself, could complete the
      mission successfully.

      It was this cold logic, without the temper of the emotion of
      compassion that led to murder.
      frgough
      • Yes, confound those imperfect humans :-)

        Hi FRGough,

        Nice to meet another techno-geek philosopher.

        Although, in keeping with the geeky debate, I would think that saying a mission is about one thing when it is, in fact, about a different thing is lying. We humans may make a distinction between "withholding he truth" and lying, but I am not at all convinced that an AI such as HAL would do so.

        I consider the "I must remove the imperfect humans so I can complete the mission" as part of the AI's psychosis, and is really just an elaborate variation on self-justification.

        I wonder what Dr. Susan Calvin would think?

        Regards,
        Jon
        JonathonDoe
        • Dr. Calvin

          would no doubt blame it on the way the command to
          withhold mission information was phrased. HAL was no doubt
          suffering from an overly strong Second Law implementation
          brought on by the forcefulness of the order, and a weakened
          First Law by the way the order was phrased (minimizing the
          value of the crew life). This forced HAL to abstract the First
          Law to Humanity and the mission over the individual humans
          on the ship.
          frgough
          • Very well said! :-)

            (no text)
            JonathonDoe
    • Exactly

      Glad that others actually see HAL as innocent. His programmers were guilty and HAL had no other choice but
      to respond as he did. I agree that this was one of the truly great insights of the story, and that grappling with truth and guilt/imperfection is more than the proper symbol of the world we currently inhabit, between the beginning of conscience and what is yet to come. The story held together very well around this point - glad others also saw the same thing. Thanks.
      rjacobs1
  • RE: Arthur C. Clarke: All These Worlds Are Yours

    I've been reading Dr. Clarke since he first put pen to paper. I grew up reading him, and Heinlein, and Asimov and many others of the "classic era" of Science Fiction writers. And I agree that it was pretty incredible to see some of his ideas come to life. I'd liked to have seen the last of the 2001 novels come to the screen but it's probably doubtful now.

    In defense of HAL we need to remember that he was given/programmed with conflicting information and, much like us carbon-based life forms, found it hard or impossible to comply with original instructions.
    rghomer
  • RE: Arthur C. Clarke: Glide Path

    One of my favorite books by Clarke is "Glide Path". His writing about this 'high tech' radar equipment from WW2 is some of his best. Summary courtesy Ama z o n.com: "During World War II, as an RAF officer, Arthur C. Clarke was in charge of the first radar "talk-down" equipment, the Ground Controlled Approach, during its experimental trials. His novel Glide Path is based on this work."
    brewakeg
  • Childhood's End

    Greatest science fiction book ever. Thank God there's no movie version of it (or if there is, that I've never seen it).
    Michael Kelly
    • I dunno....

      What about Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward?
      Hallowed are the Ori
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  • RE: Arthur C. Clarke: All These Worlds Are Yours

    Definately saddens me. I grew up on A.C.C. and he taught me about great and infinite worlds. He is probably out there, (with a friend like HAL), roaming from nebula to nebula. What a loss!!
    kri$
  • Ah, the 'Golden Age' of SF

    In my youth I consumed SF&F like air and water. It fed my questing mind and spirit with hope for a better world and a better understanding of the world and people as it exists. Arthur C. Clarke is most definitely one of the most preeminent of the techno-sages.

    I would suggest that for social insights, one consider the works of Phillip K. Dick. Best known nowadays for the adaptation of 'Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?' as the screenplay for 'Bladerunner', his work 'Stand on Zanzibar' and others offer views of life within the social structures that evolve in a technologically dominated world.

    Also, consider Asimov's 'Caves of Steel'.

    bem
    bemtex
    • Not to pick nits... but..

      [b]I would suggest that for social insights, one consider the works of Phillip K. Dick. Best known nowadays for the adaptation of 'Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?' as the screenplay for 'Bladerunner', his work 'Stand on Zanzibar' and others offer views of life within the social structures that evolve in a technologically dominated world.[/b]

      The title of the work in question is 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' - not Robots.
      Wolfie2K3
      • Stand on Zanzibar

        also being picky, this was by John Brunner, not Phillip K. DIck
        keithc
        • 'Stand' corrected...

          That will teach me to post @ 4 AM. Open mouth, insert foot. Androids it was, and Mr. Brunner deserves his due. Mea culpa for sleep-typing.
          bemtex
  • RE: Arthur C. Clarke: All These Worlds Are Yours

    Sir Arthur C. Clarke, You open the World
    llekamge
  • Sir Arthur C. Clarke, You open the World

    Sir Arthur C. Clarke, You open the World
    llekamge