Story

2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL, and the Future of AI 

Posted on Tue, April 10, 2018
favorite

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Among the many space-themed science fiction movies that have come out in recent decades, this one stands out among fans for a number of reasons. One is how director Stanley Kubrick took great pains to portray the basics of spaceflight to an outer planet as accurately as possible – the tedium of a long journey, the silence of space, the need to place most of the crew in suspended animation to save on food and oxygen, etc. Another is the role of the legendary author Arthur C. Clarke in fashioning the screenplay. Another reason—and this is why the movie remains my favorite – is the character “HAL,” the computer that runs the ship. HAL is one of the most malevolent monsters in science fiction, even if “he” was represented only by a glowing red light.

It has long been my belief that Kubrick set out to make a movie about space and ended up making a movie about computers. I need not remind viewers of recent advances in voice-recognition and artificial intelligence, which make HAL so relevant to the 21st century, even if computers in 1968 were large mainframes that took up a lot of space and consumed a lot of power. “Open the pod bay doors, HAL” remains one of the most frightening lines in any sci-fi movie. Clarke collaborated with Kubrick in writing the screenplay, but I do not think that either had much to do with the creation of HAL. That was the work of one of the advisers on the film, who is less well known but who was nevertheless a true pioneer in computing and AI as it existed in 1968: Irving John Good.

Film advisers Fred Ordway (left) and Jack Good (right) on the set of 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Film advisers Fred Ordway (left) and Jack Good (right) on the set of 2001, A Space Odyssey. Credit: Virginia Polytechnic and State University Archives

“Jack” Good (1916-2009) was literally present at the creation of the computer age. During World War II he was among the “boffins” who toiled in secrecy at Bletchley Park, north of London, where they decrypted intercepted German radio transmissions. It has been argued that their work shortened the war by months, if not years. A lot of their work was done with pencil and paper, but among the tools they used were monstrous mechanical computers called “Bombes,” and an electronic machine called “Colossus,” arguably the first electronic computer in the world. Their work was kept secret for many years, but recently the world has come to know of what they accomplished. Popular accounts, including the movie The Imitation Game, starring Kiera Knightly and Benedict Cumberbatch, celebrate the genius of the mathematician Alan Turing at Bletchley, but Good was there as well. (I was happy to see that his character had a brief role in that film.)

In the mid-1960s, as the screenplay for 2001 was taking form, computer manufacturers were marketing their machines as belonging to the new “Third Generation:” the first using vacuum tubes, the second discrete transistors, and the third integrated circuits, or silicon “chips.” Good, who later joined the Department of Statistics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, carried this further, to what he called “Generation 7”—the “Intelligent Machine,” or a machine that unexpectedly blurts out “Cogito Ergo Sum” (“I think therefore I am”). He argued that once built, it would be quickly followed by the next, and final, generation: the Ultra Intelligent Machine, which announces “I am that I am.” (From the Book of Exodus, Chapter 3 verse 14.)

Kubrick brought Good on to work on developing the character HAL, and we all know how that turned out. Fifty years later, we are still not sure whether HAL’s turn against astronaut David Bowman at the end of the film is something we need to worry about. We integrate AIs like Siri or Alexa into our daily lives much like Bowman did with HAL. If you have a Siri or Alexa at home, you may already know that they have a canned response when you ask them to “open the pod bay doors.” They seem to know a lot about our popular culture. What else do they know?