HAL - The Most Human of Them All?
It has often been commented that against the subdued human performances, the HAL 9000 computer is the most 'human' character in the film. The rhapsody on tools and technology is given a final twist: an impulse of intelligence given by an alien technology imbues man-apes with the ability to develop their own tools; technology makes humanity what it is; technology ultimately dehumanises; humanity's own technology creates a replica of humanity itself, which ultimately seeks to destroy human life for its own preservation.
"Hal (for Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer, no less) was a masterwork of the third computer breakthrough. These seemed to occur at intervals of twenty years, and the thought that another one was now imminent already worried a great many people."
In computer programming terms, heuristic programming relates to problem-solving techniques that utilise self-educating feedback techniques to improve performance, whilst algorithms are a method of solving a problem by repetitive application of a sequence of well-defined steps. Despite computer chip processing speed at least doubling every eighteen months, many scientists remain doubtful that true articifical intelligence can ever be developed. However, Clarke is clearly on the case of one possible route that, thirty years after he was writing, is currently under investigation: "In the 1980s, Minsky and Good had shown how neural networks could be generated automatically - self-replicated - in accordance with any arbitrary learning programme. Artificial brains could be grown by a process strikingly analogous to the development of a human brain." What is interesting in Hal's case is that, "the precise details would never be known, and even if they were, they would be millions of times too complex for human understanding." In other words, Clarke's humanity is creating tools beyond his own comprehension, just as the human brain is not fully understood by those who operate it on a daily basis. Not only is Hal becoming like a human, but also like the monolith, which after failing in early experiments with the man-apes, adapts its programming to new challenges: "The programme [the monolith] had contrived... was now subtly different." It is this ability to adapt which makes Hal such a threat once he mutinies: "Whilst you took every precaution to make sure that I could not hear you, I could see your lips move," Hal tells Bowman in the film after the astronauts had planned to disconnect him. The perils of A.I. are inherent in the strengths of natural intelligence.
2001 is by no means the only fiction to explore the paranoid fantasy that our machines may one day rise up against us (James Cameron, creator of the Terminator films, was first inspired to direct after watching 2001), but a piece of exposition contained in the novel, that Kubrick omits from the film, paints this scenario in an intriguing light. The fear that over-powerful machines generate is often encapsulated by their unrelenting perfection. Hal is adamant that "The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake, or distorted information. We are all by any practical definition of the words foolproof and incapable of error." (2001 Screenplay). And when mistakes do seem to occur, he maintains that, . "This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error." (2001 Screenplay). And yet the computer goes berserk and attempts to murder the very crew it is programmed to protect. But Clarke - the techno-optimist - reminds us that technology can only be as perfect as its human programmers, even technology whose essence is beyond total comprehension. Hal fails because he has been ordered to perform a human fallibility: he has been told to lie, a command that is "snake" in his "electronic Eden.": "Deliberate error was unthinkable. Even the concealment of truth filled him with a sense of imperfection, of wrongness - of what, in a human being, would have been called guilt... For the last hundred million miles, he had been brooding over the secret he could not share with Poole and Bowman. He had been living a lie; and the time was fast approaching when his colleagues must learn that he had helped to deceive them." And when Hal is forced to protect himself against disconnection, like a human, or man-ape, in the same position "he would protect himself, with all the weapons at his command."
It is Clarke's exposition of human error behind Hal's mayhem that has done much to rehabilitate the character, particularly amongst the computer fraternity. Beyond that homage and parody have firmly staked their claim to the character. He redeems himself admirably in the all the sequels by helping the humans - in 2010 as a computer, and in the final two Odysseys as a Star-Child akin to Bowman. It
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