Stephen Wolfram Q&A

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Some collected questions and answers by Stephen Wolfram

Questions may be edited for brevity; see links for full questions.

February 6, 1998

From: Interview by David Stork, Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality

A lot of things haven’t worked out exactly as 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted. Does that surprise you?

Well, given the level of detail in the movie, it’s an absolute setup to be proved wrong. I’ve got to say that I’m really impressed by how much was got right. And I think a lot of the mistakes are really interesting mistakes—mistakes that one learns something by seeing why they were made. I actually think quite a lot about trying to predict things, and I find it incredibly useful to go back and see why mistakes in predicting got made before.

I suppose I’ve noticed two big reasons for mistakes. One is historical accidents—things that worked out the way they did for some fairly chance reason: because some particular person invented something in a particular way or whatever. And another is much deeper: not understanding a basic concept. Not getting a big idea—a paradigm shift or whatever—that really changes how a lot of stuff works.

Of course in looking at the movie, some of the most obvious mistakes aren’t about technology. The hairstyles look all wrong. The voiceprint identification system asks for a “Christian name” and so on. Actually, it’s interesting that the various companies portrayed in the movie—Bell, Pan Am, BBC, Hilton and so on—are all still around, at least in one form or another. But most of them have quite different logos now. The fact that graphic design tastes change is a pretty general thing; but which particular companies changed their logos is definitely in the category of historical accident. Same with the fact that some of the typefaces in the movie look dated, and some don’t.

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