posted on (deprecated) site on January 22, 2018. A speech given at the Arthur C Clarke Centennial on the 16th of December, 2017, Colombo.
BOWMAN Hal, give me manual hibernation control.
HAL Have you decided to revive the rest of the crew, Dave?
BOWMAN Yes, I have.
HAL I suppose it's because you've been under a lot of stress, but have you forgotten that they're not supposed to be revived for another three months.
BOWMAN The antenna has to be replaced.
HAL Repairing the antenna is a pretty dangerous operation.
HAL If you're determined to revive the crew now, I can handle the whole thing myself. There's no need for you to trouble.
BOWMAN I'm going to do this myself, Hal. Let me have the control, please.
HAL Look, Dave you've probably got a lot to do. I suggest you leave it to me.
That’s HAL 9000, from Arthur C Clarke’s most famous novel: 2001 – A Space Odyssey. I’ve actually taken it from the script, because it’s easier to speak it out loud.
The novel explains that HAL is unable to resolve a conflict between his general mission to relay information accurately and orders specific to the mission requiring that HAL withhold from Bowman and Poole the true purpose of the mission. With the crew dead, HAL reasons, he would not need to be lying to them. HAL fabricates the failure of a communicator unit so that their deaths would like accidents.
Back then, when Sir Arthur wrote these words, the world was on the verge of a new scientific dawn. AI. The thinking machine.
In 1950 Alan Turing published a landmark paper in which he speculated about the possibility of creating machines that think. He noted that “thinking” is difficult to define and devised his famous Turing Test. If a machine could carry on a conversation (over a teleprinter) that was indistinguishable from a conversation with a human being, then it was reasonable to say that the machine was “thinking”. This simplified version of the problem allowed Turing to argue convincingly that a “thinking machine” was at least plausible and the paper answered all the most common objections to the proposition.
And this hope continued: in the 1956’s Dartmouth conference, computer scientists like Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy, Claude Shannon and Nathan Rochester, Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon, people who would go on to become experts in this field, were really hopeful that we’d very soon have computers sitting down and having conversations with us.
And Clarke’s depiction of HAL 9000 may have seemed pessimistic in the context of those times.
The concept of humans being trapped or enslaved by their own technology, however, is not recent, especially if you abstract it one level. We’ve always had, in mythology, the story of the Creators ultimately being toppled by the Created. Cronos versus Zeus. Gods against mortals. Humans versus the technology that we created.