Just under half a biblical lifetime ago — 32 years, to be exact — the computer Hal was introduced to the world in the movie and novel “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Offspring of the fertile brain of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Hal came to embody the world’s collective hopes and fears concerning artificial intelligence. You remember it: the unsleeping, superintelligent computer who had been programmed to take control of the spaceship in an emergency, but who spookily started to take control anyway. . . . Since 1968, the AI community has been approaching, as on an asymptotic curve, the point where Hal and reality meet.
It inched closer still last week with the announcement that Sir Arthur, now 82, had lent his name to a British project to bring Hal to a mass-market version of life. The planned new PC, so advanced that it reportedly has 15 patents just on the motherboard, will not be known breezily as Hal (“for Heuristically programmed algorithmic computer”), but rather clunkily as the Clarke 1 Gigahertz Omniputer. Hal, it was felt, sounded too much like “hell” and wouldn’t mean anything to “younger customers.” (There’s a unique generation-gap marker for you.) But like Hal, the Omniputer will be mouseless, partially self-repairing and able to see and hear.
Way back in 1989, Sir Arthur wrote that if the Galileo mission reached Jupiter by 1995, he would probably undertake the fourth and final sequel to his Odyssey trilogy in time for publication on Jan. 1, 2001. As it happened, “3001: The Final Odyssey” was published in 1997. The mythic date will now, if all goes well, see instead the incarnation of Hal. Time has an eerie way of catching up with one after another of the farseeing Sir Arthur’s imagined scenarios. But as this particular fantasy approaches reality, we feel more than usually solemn. Although its developers deny that the Clarke Omniputer will try to literally kill its owners, as Hal did, there are all kinds of deaths — and hells, too. Even some of those on the leading edge of artificial-intelligence research admit there are shadows of both in the brave new Clarke-shaped world.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.