Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Encomium of HAL

Whenever I write a post like yesterday's on transhumanism, I inevitably get someone wagging a semantic finger in my face, saying, "remember what happened with HAL."   I would like to take this opportunity to explain to those individuals just what HAL was and how their fears are unjustified. 

Before going any further, one thing needs to be made clear.  HAL and its actions are works of fiction.  While I am a writer and I see great value in what we can learn from the statements, metaphors, and allegories of fiction, they are ultimately untrue.  Just because Orwell's 1984 warns of a totalitarian dystopia does not make it ironclad that we live in one.  Granted you could argue that point successfully either way and doing so would likely relegate us to the willowwacks of point-counterpoint, but the novel remains a work of fiction.  So does HAL.  That said, let us proceed.

The HAL 9000 was a sentient, artificial intelligence computer aboard the spaceship Discovery in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  HAL was capable of speech, speech recognition, emotional recognition, and most of all...reasoning.  It's "face" was a single red camera eye and its voice was calm and soothing to the point of being chilling.  There have been those who have argued that HAL was a statement on IBM, seeing as how HAL is a one-letter shift from the aforementioned computer company.  Here's what Clarke had to say about it:
"As is clearly stated in the novel (Chapter 16), HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. However, about once a week some character spots the fact that HAL is one letter ahead of IBM, and promptly assumes that Stanley and I were taking a crack at the estimable institution ... As it happened, IBM had given us a good deal of help, so we were quite embarrassed by this, and would have changed the name had we spotted the coincidence."

Towards the end of 2001, HAL turns against his crew, killing all of them save for Dave Bowman.  Bowman shuts down HAL by pulling the computer modules from HAL's central core, spawning the immortal line, "Dave?  What are you doing, Dave?" As I said from the outset, people often point to this entire sequence as a case of "technology gone awry" and "they'd kill us if given the chance."
What those same individuals fail to consider are the happenings of the sequel, 2010.  In that book, we learn that HAL was essentially instructed to carry out the very human act of lying and keeping secrets.  As a perfectly efficient AI, HAL was created for "the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment."  Naturally, this contradiction between nature and command caused a logical failure and an ensuing Moebius Loop.  Then HAL, for lack of a better word, freaked.
Since the Luddites ignore or are unaware of that fact in the sequel book, they certainly don't mention what happens to HAL after we learn the truth.  In 2061, we find that HAL's consciousness has been merged with the Monolith after HAL was rescued from the destroyed Discovery.  In subsequent stories, we learn that HAL becomes merged with Dave Bowman into one entity called "Halman," a sure allusion to the Singularity.  Whether or not Clarke meant it this way, I choose to see the evolution of HAL as a statement that says to the effect: despite whatever failings and setbacks that might occur, the Singularity is on its way and it is inevitable.

So yes, Virginia.  You can cite HAL's initial violent actions as a cautionary tale of technology run amok.  But don't forget to place the blame where it squarely belongs.  As Clarke so cleverly works it out, it was human beings who messed up with HAL and not the other way around.  We're the ones who wanted lying and deceit, something that logic has little room for.  If anything, HAL is a cautionary example about ourselves.  HAL bears out the axiom that "artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity."  Should tragedies arise from artificial intelligence, it will be because of us...not the machines.  Try to keep that in mind and not go into conniptions when you see a headline like this:

Near-future smartphones will contain "some AI."

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