I vividly remember the year 2001. Of all the things that occurred in that year, we all reminisce, of course, about the unreal events of September 11th. The human loss notwithstanding, 2001 was not at all the way Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke envisioned it in the seminal 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a film that has since been scrutinized from many angles and dissected by film critics and students alike, but one fact remains always true: It shows a future that is highly stylized and visually pristine.
That was never the aim of the narrative, which begins with the dawn of man and ends with the birth of the starchild. 2001 certainly lends itself very well to endless philosophical debates, but this article is about the technology. How much of it has become reality, and how has it affected our society? For this purpose, I would like to focus on one of the film’s characters — since it can be considered intelligent, by human standards, we can call it a character — HAL 9000, the spaceship’s computer.
Many of us use computers every day, every minute of our lives. This is very much the case all over the world. We see people using phones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers, so it acknowledges our dependencies on digital helpers. Even I make use of technology as much as possible. When was the last time I used an actual map made of paper? I can’t remember.
Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
It is likely that most who read this have seen 2001. For those who have not, beware that the rest of the article includes some spoilers — namely the scene where astronaut Dave Bowman encounters a tenacious HAL while sitting in a pod in space. From that scene on, we witness an intense, but ironically calm struggle between man and machine. It’s ironic because, in this scene, Bowman prevails with the same cool calm that HAL displays when he refuses to “open the pod bay doors.”
HAL is, in many ways, an amusing take on the leading electronics company of the time, IBM. If you look closely, you will notice that each letter of HAL alphabetically precedes the letters of IBM’s company name. Whether or not it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it was an homage. HAL definitely represented a world of tomorrow for moviegoers in 1968 — one that would be dominated by a new understanding of humanity. As Bowman moves to switch off HAL, the mechanical personification of human helplessness, it begs him to stop. In hopes that it would inspire mercy, HAL cites its date of manufacturing, concluding with singing a famous children’s song, Daisy Bell.
The all-powerful computer, which controls all systems onboard the spaceship, is switched off by a creature it considers to be inferior. HAL acted out of duty, though the blind duty of following orders. His circuits could not understand the concept of choice.
The red eye.
HAL is characterized by a large, luminous red lens, which is its eye into the human world. For the cinephiles among us, here is some trivia. The POV shots were created with a 160-degree Cinerama wide-angle lens, with a 20 cm (eight inches) diameter. HAL’s actual prop lens was about 7.6 cm (three inches) in diameter. Later, it was identified as a Nikon 8 mm fisheye lens. Behind the faceplate, within the fictional confines, was the future of computing — at least for the standards of the late 1960s.
Visually, it is likely inspired by the concepts of ubiquitous surveillance in 1984, with the one glaring difference being that anyone looking into HAL’s eye would see a reflection. Maybe Kubrick and Clarke intended it as a metaphor for the similarity of man and machine. HAL was invented to be, and manufactured to imitate, human behaviour, however, without our defects and shortcomings in ethical matters. As witnessed in the famous “Open the pod bay doors, HAL!” scene, the artificial understanding of duty over ethics will most likely be a reason for conflict when we finally create a similarly advanced artificial intelligence.
From 2005, I studied for three years in London. Anyone who has been there knows that there are probably very few corners in the UK’s capital that are not under the watchful eye of a CCTV camera in the same way that HAL notices and logs every movement onboard, even when the two human protagonists take precautions to go unheard. In a previous article I examined the state of society in my home country of Sweden. Computers are all around us, without a doubt. In 2001, HAL is neither just evil or outright good — he is both. This dichotomy in its thinking progress is inherent to its human creators.
HAL is the only entity on board who knows of the precarious and crucial final purpose of the mission to Jupiter. For reasons both philosophical and moral, the space agency embeds this information in HAL’s memory banks. Already before the mission begins, no one trusts in the integrity of the astronauts. Instead, they trust the newest man-made creation, which they think will act with extreme prejudice.
It is the human counterparts on board the Discovery spaceship who betray HAL first. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole, the two protagonists, discuss whether or not it is in their best interest to shut down HAL. This decision came only after the seemingly faultless computer makes a false prediction about the imminent failure of communication hardware. Ensuing the insidious scheme hatched by the two, HAL goes on to eliminate them. Neither Bowman nor Poole ever considered that HAL could read their lip movements as they sat in a pod to debate the deactivation.
It is my contention that the computer’s reaction is absolutely human. If someone were to kill your best friend, most probably you would be vengeful. HAL is just less calculating and more impulsive about it in that he is very human, also considering the possibility that authorities on Earth triggered his breakdown. Obviously the mission’s true purposes supersede the value of Discovery’s human crew members. HAL did nothing wrong; he simply complied to the orders given by those with authority over him, the mission and the crew.
2001 was not like 2001.
Computers today are not intelligent, per se. They can perform key tasks at blazing speeds and with high precision. Yet computers cannot yet write literature, paint art, or make a better world. They do what programmers make them do, nothing more. Notwithstanding these reservations, IBM has made immense progress with WATSON, which beat the highest scoring winners of the game Jeopardy. To achieve that feat, the computer had access to “200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage… and has 16 terabytes of working memory.” This was in 2011, 10 years after the year that the fictitious Space Odyssey was launched.
There is, indeed, a space station orbiting Earth, the ISS. Still, it is far from Kubrick’s vision of a Hilton franchise in space. In fact, last year news spread about the US possibly abandoning space exploration. This marked also the end of the space shuttle program, with its last commemorative flight this last April. Without a doubt this is not the end, but rather a new beginning for a new era.
The year 2101 may be very close to the world shown in Space Odyssey. Most of us will not be alive, unless between now and then medical advancements continue to take big leaps forward. By that year, there will have been a manned mission to Mars, a revisitation of the Moon, and perhaps even a commercial space station orbiting Earth. It will be a world that looks almost the same, but behind the facade we may have, in many aspects, become “human 2.0.”
For many years to come, HAL 9000 will remain a frightening vision of the future of computing. Until then, the human brain remains the most advanced computer of all.