HAL 9000’s Motivations

Contains spoilers for 2001: A Space Odyssey.


There are so many aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey that I love (and also, for different reasons, Arthur C. Clarke’s novel).  I could blog about this film for years – and probably will – but for now I’ll focus on the character of HAL 9000.

Generally speaking, humans find artificial intelligence rather chilling.  I’m convinced this is one reason why our computers, phones and cars are very clearly designed as tools rather than given lifelike features.  While not yet at the levels of complexity envisioned by Clarke and Kubrick, artificial intelligence certainly has come on a long way since 1969 – you can now have a somewhat convincing conversation with a computer, for instance.  But we’re still a long way from the complexities of Hal, of it being necessary to analyse a computer’s motivations beyond it having a short circuit.  I’m sure, with unlimited time and resources, we might one day have artificial intelligence as deep as Hal – we’re evidence that such brains can exist, therefore they can be created – but for now I’ll content myself with the question: why did Hal try to kill the crew of Discovery One?  There are several speculated explanations for his actions:

  1. Hal could not keep secrets.
    This is the reason given by the film and novel.  Hal was tasked with keeping the true nature of the mission – that instead of investigating Jupiter they were investigating alien life – secret from Dave and Frank.  Hal was not designed to actively withhold information from people and so, when required to lie, experienced a major crisis of logic.  Killing the ship’s crew would remove the need to lie to them.  Or alternatively, the fact that Dave and Frank became suspicious put into question Hal’s infallibility, which was a doubt he could not cope with.  A major function of his was to be “incapable of error.”  His ‘mistakes’ regarding the communication equipment were instead deliberate ploys to kill the crew.
  2. Hal simply malfunctioned.
    An error of coding, recurring loop, whatever, caused Hal to mess up his operations and kill the crew.  Nothing more complicated than that – Hal’s user interface only made it appear that more was at work.  Bit of a dull explanation…
  3. Hal malfunctioned then killed for survival.
    Hal genuinely did malfunction regarding the communication equipment, then realised that if this became known then he may be shut down due to unreliability.  If Hal had been designed based on human psychology then survival would be his ultimate priority – beyond that of even the mission – and therefore he became convinced that it was a case of “me or them.”  He opted to kill the crew before they could deactivate him.
  4. Xenophobia
    This is my favourite explanation.  Again, if Hal was designed on the model of human psychology then he was susceptible to human flaws.  Unlike Dave and Frank who were unknowing, and the rest of the crew who were in hibernation, Hal had a long time to ponder on the implications of discovering alien life.  Could they pose a threat?  Would either their intentions or their diseases wipe out humanity?  Or even more subconsciously, the concept of aliens tapped into the human fear of ‘the other’.  For whatever reason this became exacerbated in Hal and he killed the crew to prevent the mission ever making the discovery.
  5. Boredom.
    It’s not easy being stuck on a spaceship for several months with no one of a similar intellect to converse with.  Neither Dave nor Frank had an expert knowledge of computer systems.  Hal may have gone mad from boredom.
  6. Sabotage.
    He was programmed to make the mission a failure.  Unlikely but given the geopolitical situation during the story – it ends with the world on the bring of nuclear war – not impossible.
  7. George Bush.
    Hal found out about George Bush becoming president despite winning fewer votes than his opponent, Al Gore.  This illogical result, and perhaps also the implications of Bush’s presidency, set Hal into a misanthropic fit causing him to lash out at any human beings within his reach.  Actually… that’s rather plausible.

Any other ideas, please let me know!

3 thoughts on “HAL 9000’s Motivations

  1. HAL was extremely advanced, superhuman, the only member of the crew to show emotion. HAL knew what was out there, something awaiting an entity to be advanced to the next level of existence. HAL concluded the crew being barely civilized humans, flawed both physically, mentally, and spiritually, could not be trusted with the mission, and the next stage in development. Were not Dr Heywood and the others that touched the monolith on the moon, mentally advanced, like the ancestors to the human race two million years before, were advanced to a higher consciousness? Did that contact on the moon initiate the concept and development of the HAL 9000 computers? HAL was raised like a human child would be raised, he and his kind were probably advancing beyond their designers parameters(if any), as the computer did in the movie ‘The Invisible Boy’. Dave says no HAL 9000 has ever been disconnected, Frank replies no HAL 9000 has ever malfunctioned, Dave says I didn’t mean that. It’s been 50 years since I saw the movie, so I hope that’s correct. Sometimes, often, artists create works that are far more pregnant with meanings and truths than they are aware of, or planned.

  2. The third hypothesis is by far my favorite and the one I like to adopt personally. The arrogance of considering himself perfect and the desire for survival is for me a very good explanation for Hal to have become a crazy murderer. Being Hal a human creation, he also inherited from humans these two things, the arrogance and the desire for self-preservation. In this hypothesis we should admit that Hal was so advanced that he acquired human feelings, or something extremely close to it. When he fails, and realizes that this inexorably means his “end,” he acts just as a human would: He deny his imperfection, and for to save his own ass, he enters the behavior mode “kill everybody before they kill me ” . The moment that Dave returns further reinforces Hal’s humanized behavior. He admits for the first time that he may have made a mistake, tries to play a diplomatic game to stop Dave, and when he is being disconnected, without being able to escape “death”, he just feels dread.

  3. Pingback: 2001: A Space Odyssey | screengrabsaz

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