Nerd Factor: For the Love of HAL

Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” one of the most important science fiction movies ever made. This sprawling vision of human history was directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, who also co-wrote the film with another legend, prolific writer and futurist, Arthur C. Clarke. The movie opens in prehistory as our primate ancestors struggle to survive. It closes with a hallucinogenic journey into the unknown that ultimately hints at the destiny of our species.  However, it’s the middle of the film that often garners the most attention (and not just because it’s easier to understand).

In this section, we are presented with a vision of our near future. These days, this might seem like a prime example of what Joseph J. Corn called “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” and it is admittedly tempting to get caught up in what the movie got wrong when it imagined our future. After all, we did not get the intra-solar system travel, space stations and moon bases that the movie prophesied by the titular deadline. Thematically though, this movie is about human potential and ambition, our urge to discover and create. Perhaps we should be glad that we have yet to create a machine intelligence like this movie’s HAL 9000.

Long before HAL, the science fiction genre was full of computers and robots and such that wanted to replace or kill us. It’s so full that we might want to be careful to keep the Netflix passwords from the first artificial intelligence we do create, as we might not want them to know how scared of them we can be. HAL was a decidedly different sort of antagonist, one with few matches in the genre.

Basically, HAL was in charge of the operations on the “Discovery,” a ship sent on a mission to Jupiter. HAL is more like the computers we know today.  This is no robot menace clunking around. HAL surrounds the crew. In essence, he is the ship, and he interacts with the astronauts through an interface of simple design that is pure Kubrick. HAL’s red camera eye is located on various parts of the ship, usually in a rectangular port. More important than the look though, is the voice. Played by actor Douglas Rain, HAL speaks in calm and pleasant tones. In a film loaded with astronauts and scientists who speak in professional and measured ways, HAL is arguably the most human-sounding character in the film.

To me, the most fascinating thing about HAL as an adversary is that his motives are not so terribly hard to understand, even if they take a bit of time to be revealed.  Without spoiling too much of the film, I will note that HAL goes on to kill several members of the crew. The later part of the middle section of the movie is a showdown between HAL and astronaut Dave Poole.  HAL is neither the monologuing narcissist Ultron nor is he the implacable killer, Terminator. HAL is a man on a mission.

I chose man for a reason in the sentence above. For unlike much of his computer movie brethren, HAL is all too human. What makes his menace so poignant, so frightening, is that he is like his creators. HAL has cracked, essentially suffering a nervous breakdown under the strain of his job. And in that way, HAL teaches an important lesson. We must remember not to make machines too much like us.