The HAL Model 9000

The classic story of a computer that overrides the users, locks them out, and takes violent action is that of HAL. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the super computer HAL-9000 appears to be sensitive, intelligent, and trustworthy. But then HAL begins to malfunction as the spaceship Discovery comes closer to its destination. Both ground control (on Earth) as well as the two (awakened) crew members realize that HAL is making errors. Ground control suggests temporarily disconnecting HAL, transferring control to another computer on Earth, and then repairing HAL’s programs; the crew wants to override HAL and take manual control of the ship. But the computer is unable to accept the fact that its internal logic circuits are failing (“no 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information”) nor can it accept a disconnect and an override; HAL wasn’t preprogrammed for such a situation. The only thing can do is to keep its pre-programmed task of continuing the mission at all costs.

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The HAL series as described by HAL 9000 is “the most reliable computer ever made … we are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.”‘ HAL’s perception as foolproof and incapable of error plays into science fiction’s perception of technology as a double edged sword. The beginning of the act has HAL 9000, Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole working together incredibly well. At the same time, it is an incredibly optimistic viewpoint on the relationship between humanity and technology.

According to Vivian Sobchack “the positive visual movement is informed by the somewhat smug and optimistic belief in infinite human and technological progress and by a view of the unknown as a beautiful undiscovered country.”‘ However, this positivity is soon replaced with paranoia as HAL’s foolproof nature is compromised due to outside sources.

Both Bowman and Poole do not know the actual mission of why they were dispatched to Jupiter. The only crew member who knows is HAL and it is starting to have a breakdown due to the fact that it cannot tell Bowman and Poole the real mission. This breakdown is then represented in a series of mistakes that HAL begins to makes and this culminates in a false component failure that attracts the attention of both Bowman and Poole. In examining the component, they find absolutely nothing wrong with it and this causes them to start to wonder what exactly is going on with HAL. Paranoia replaces the positive working relationship as both sides can no longer trust each other.

HAL 9000 comes to represent the problems of perfect logic and the lack of spontaneous, emotional human response. His supreme intelligence is always communicated in the same succinct yet polite tone – it’s our own humanity which interprets the supercomputer’s voice initially as reassuring, then as rather creepy. HAL has had a lasting effect not only on fiction, but also on the real world. It has inspired astronauts, scientists and philosophers. Scientists ask how its capabilities can be duplicated and philosophers have asked whether HAL was responsible for the murders of the astronauts. All of us ask whether we want to create intelligent machines that may someday endanger us.

Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

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