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!


Death on Mars

As far as we are aware, no organism has ever lived or died on our red neighbour, Mars.  Perhaps evidence will one day emerge of fossilised bacteria hidden within Martian rock.  There is indisputable proof that water once flowed freely on the surface after all, which is one prerequisite for life as we currently understand it.  Some scientists have even suggested life could exist today in underground, water-filled caverns, though I’m not sure how likely this is.  Whatever the truth, nobody has doubted that Mars’ oxygen-less, atmosphere-limited, distant surface would be an easy place to live, but this hasn’t deterred humanity’s persistent dream of one day walking on the red planet.

The Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery, on the other hand, might do just that.  Apparently the level of radiation potential astronauts would endure in both traveling and settling on Mars are far beyond what is considered safe for a human to experience.  Here are some figures, taken from the BBC (measure in millisievert, the unit of equivalent radiation dose):

  •  Annual average: 2.7mSv
  • Whole body CT Scan: 10mSv
  • 6 months on the International Space Station: 100mSv
  • Traveling to and from Mars (excluding time spent on planet): 660mSv

For the average human in a developed country exposed to 2.7mSv a year (so perhaps just over 200mSv in a lifetime), the chances of developing a cancer are around 1 in 4.  If I understand this correctly, this makes the chances of developing a cancer after traveling to Mars far greater than ought to be acceptable.

This, understandably, poses huge problems for the future of space exploration.  It’s incredible that such a haven for life could ever develop on the Earth considering how many dangers exist to us outside of the planet.  While I think some scientists are still optimistic, I find these figures very depressing.  They serve to remind me that the Earth is not a cradle, but a prison.  We are trapped here for each of our tiny lives until the prison walls break down and then even here won’t be inhabitable – once the solar flares beam down, or the surface becomes irradiated by ultra-violet light, or a stray piece of rock slams into us, or…

Mars is a world of death and Earth a world of life.  But Earth is defying the norm of the Universe – how long before it joins Mars?  It’s as if the Universe were designed with the strict intention of making life impossible.

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