Arthur C. Clarke on life, the universe and everything
Spike note: This interview was released as part of the PR package for Clarke’s most recent book, 3001: The Final Odyssey. Therefore it’s appeared in several places before. However, since interviews with Clarke these days are rare, it seemed foolish not to reproduce it here.
Transcript of an interview with Arthur C Clarke via telephone between Sri Lanka and London on Tuesday 17 June 1997:
Q: Dr Clarke, you were well known as making one of the most famous scientific predictions of the 20th century regarding communications satellites and you’ve lived to see the information revolution happen in your lifetime. We’re very interested to find out what your current thinking is about the next century in terms of communications technology.
Dr Clarke: There is nothing we can’t do now that we want to. The restraints are entirely economic and political.
Q: What do you see happening in the developing world for instance?
Dr Clarke: That’s the most interesting aspect in some ways because we’ve got to leapfrog straight into the next century. I’m addressing the leaders of ASEAN on 15 December, the day before my birthday, my 80th birthday and that’s one of the points I’m going to make. The free flow of information made possible by satellites means the end of censorship and dictatorship and my friend Rupert Murdoch made that point the other day. He’s retreated since then because he deals with the Chinese.
Q: Do you think that the Internet as a specific communications technology is merely one more way that the information rich can isolate themselves from the information poor?
Dr Clarke: It will become cheaper and cheaper. I mean who would have dreamed that when you go to the villages of Sri Lanka you see a kind of grass hut and there’s a tv antenna on top.
Q: Is there much Internet usage in Sri Lanka?
Dr Clarke: A great deal. I’m not sure of the figure but there’s a great deal of activity here. It’s exploding rapidly in all directions.
Q: What are you are most looking forward to in the next ten years?
Dr Clarke: Well surviving I suppose at the moment. This is very speculative but I’m now 90 per cent sure that the energy revolution is starting and that the oil and the fossil fuel age ending.
Q: Is that with cold fusion?
Dr Clarke: So called. The first commercial units are going on market very soon and the first company has been launched and they’ve got plenty of money behind them. Look up CETI on the web, just one of many of course.
Q: What is it you are so optimistic about that mankind will be around for the third millennium?
Dr Clarke: Well I haven’t said that but I think we’ve got a 51% percent chance of survival which makes me an optimist.
Q: Do you think the web is a good advertisement for humanity?
Dr Clarke: Well actually I’ve only seen small bits if it myself. Life just too short to find the right site. Believe it or not my memory is getting really short and the other day I’d forgotten one of my own Laws.
Q: Is that the one about the elderly and respected scientist?
Dr Clarke: No, that’s the first law…The fourth one I’m sure will appeal to you. It has been in print somewhere. Reading the software manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software. I couldn’t remember that for a couple of days so I popped in, looked for ‘Clarke’ on the web and got over 100,000 hits and gave up in despair.
Q: So you’ve achieved some sort of electronic immortality already last Dr Clarke?
Dr Clarke: I guess I’m already 50 light years from earth because of my first BBC TV broadcasts from Alexandra Palace
Q: So how do you reflect on the changes in the twentieth century?
Dr Clarke: Well the most extraordinary change has been the micro chip and none of us creative science fiction writers dreamed that this would happen so fast. It touches every aspect of human life. I mean there were probably about 10 computers for every human being on the planet then; there’s probably about a 100 now. There’s hardly been anything that’s been quite as transcendental as that. However if you do want some challenging ideas…. I know this is a chance for a commercial …..but take a look at 3001: The Final Odyssey.
Q: Micro chips in the brain?
Dr Clarke: I think there’s more and more people taking that seriously.
Q: What is your vision of the future of the Internet? Do you have any fears about the way its going to be developing and the way people are relating to it?
Dr Clarke: Well I am worried about people being plugged in all the time and losing all human contact and there’s been many SF stories along those lines. That is the real danger. We all know these pallid nerds who sit hour after hour in front of their VDUs and don’t even remember to eat.
Q: But apart from that do you feel its a positive development?
Dr Clarke: Oh yes… look at printing. When the printing press was invented of course people said what’s the use of printing when only a few people could read.
Q: I was wondering what you would suggest is the best way to celebrate the millennium? Do you have any ideas on that?
Dr Clarke: Well first of all they’re celebrating the wrong date. 1 January 2000 is a year too early. Incidentally I’m getting fed up with people suddenly discovering this fault which I described nearly ten years ago when they changed the date and all the computers go crazy. There’s a chapter on that called The Century Syndrome in one of my books – that’s how computer companies make their money by exploiting that problem and now everybody is suddenly waking up to the fact that the problem exists.
Q: Last year when that comet impacted on Jupiter people started to ask whether the same sort of thing could happen to us. Do you think mankind is adequately prepared for that sort of threat?
Dr Clarke: Well I’m heavily involved in this as you probably know. In fact at this moment I hope Stephen Speilberg is filming my novel The Hammer of God. He’s optioned it. This is a very serious problem. There was an excellent programme I caught on CNN earlier this week called Fire From Heaven and I hadn’t realised that the great Chicago fire was a meteor strike. That was news to me. Apparently all around Chicago, miles away, several other towns burnt up that night.
Q: Do you feel there is enough co-ordinated activity amongst the worlds governments to deal with that?
Dr Clarke: On the contrary, they’re cutting back on the funding. There’s a big hullaballo about this on the Internet and as group of us are trying to get action on this, at least do a Space Watch to find out what’s out there. We can do something about it if we have sufficient warning about it but if we have no warning we’ve had it. As a friend of mine said, the dinosaurs became extinct because they did not have a space programme.
Q: You have some very interesting thoughts about low-earth orbit satellites vs geostationary satellites. Is that something you could share with us?
Dr Clarke: I’ve got a gentleman from Inmarsat arriving tomorrow morning to film me making a statement about that. And having said that I have an obvious bias towards the geostationary satellites and I’m worried about the multitude of low altitude ones because of the space pollution business. I’ve said many times I’m afraid that the future astronauts will tread their way through orbiting minefields… the way we’re going at the moment.
Q: Obviously there’s a lot of money riding on this this decision..
Dr Clarke: Yes there’s a tremendous amount of money. I can’t keep track of all that’s going on. I can see only one disadvantage to the geostationary satellite and that is the time lag and as I’m sure many of you know, we’ve been rather fooled by the return of fibre optics. Now we’re talking about practically no time lag. You do notice the time lag if you have a geostationary satellite. That’s the only objection.
Q: Sixty years ago you were a member of the British Interplanetary Society basically working on a mission to the moon. Do you think that yourself of sixty years ago would be amazed or disappointed at what we’ve done in space so far?
Dr Clarke: Well I’m absolutely amazed. I mean I have no feeling of disappointment. I’ve seen far more in my life than I ever dreamed. I don’t think I ever really thought we’d see men on the moon and I certainly didn’t think we’d see these stunning close ups of all the planets except Pluto and all those satellites. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this image from Europa that everyone is puzzled over. It’s frame 00588. It’s an absolutely straight line going right across it’ More than 200 KM long. No one can explain it.
Q: Would you care to speculate?
Dr Clarke: Well it’s pretty wide, at least a mile wide, but maybe the Europeans were big?
Q: What do you feel about the activities of Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and others who appear to be waged in a battle for global supremacy?
Dr Clarke: I see Ted Turner has challenged Rupert to a wrestling match or a boxing match. That should be rather interesting. I’ve met them both of course although I’ve only met Rupert by satellite when we had a confrontation in Westminster at the Banqueting Hall a couple of years ago which was great fun. Well, they are remarkable people and may the best man win.
Q: Any thoughts on the oceans and what’s happening in that particular area?
Dr Clarke: Of course that’s what brought me to Sri Lanka in the first place. I’m very concerned with saving the ocean and I start diving again next year. Although I’m unable to walk on land I’m 90 per cent operational under water.
Q: Do you see anything exciting happening in artificial intelligence at the moment?
Dr Clarke: Well there’s an awful lot of interest around. I’m sure we’re going to get to almost any form of artificial intelligence eventually. I think we’re an intermediate species. Our successors will be artificial intelligence of some kind. I hope they treat us nicely.
Q: Are you disappointed that it hasn’t been achieved at the kind of level it was depicted in 2001 with HAL?
Dr Clarke: I am not sure I am disappointed. I’m sure it will happen eventually, if not by 2001, then by 2101.