50 Years After '2001: A Space Odyssey,' How Close Are We to HAL 9000?


When '2001: A Space Odyssey' premiered 50 years ago, living and working in space was only science fiction; not anymore. NASA

"My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm afraid." Fifty years after audiences first saw, or rather, heard, HAL 9000, the homicidal artificial intelligence in "2001: A Space Odyssey," its melancholy end still evokes a pang of empathy. Thanks, in part, to the film's much-vaunted accuracy in depicting the peculiarities of space travel, Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece ranks among the greatest science fiction films ever made. Unlike most sci-fi flicks, which are typically crammed full of action and noise, Kubrick was unafraid to let his audience experience the slowness and silence of space.

But speaking of accuracy, where are we with HAL? In the movie, it demonstrates mastery of, among other things, space travel, chess, chitchat, art appreciation and, with disastrous results, lip-reading. Never mind the half-century since Kubrick co-invented this miraculous machine with author, Arthur C. Clarke, it's been 17 years since the eponymous space-odyssey was supposed to take place. Are we there yet with AI?

The answer oscillates between very-much-so, somewhat and not-at-all depending on what aspect of HAL you're focusing on. Yes, we've got IBM's Deep Blue, which has defeated the world's greatest chess masters, and IBM's Watson, which trounces all comers at "Jeopardy!" But ask those two computers to switch roles and they would be flattened by 12-year-olds. Meanwhile, Siri or Google Home can perform simple tasks in response to specific questions, but they've been shown to have the IQs of children.

So back to that question: Are we anywhere close to HAL 9000? Taken as a whole, we can definitively say, absolutely not. We're nowhere close to having a single AI with HAL's magisterial range of capability.

Let's go back to that opening quote and zero in on the question of HAL's emotional capacity. "I can feel it. I'm afraid." HAL's existential dread is at the core of the character's endurance as a pop culture icon. Do we have any emotional robots out there? Not really. We can program AI to simulate and mimic emotional responses, such as sympathy, but that's not at all the same thing as actually experiencing anxiety about something like imminent extinction.

We haven't even begun to program AI to feel real emotions, and the chief reason for that is that we don't really understand how, or even why, emotions work in humans. All that to say it's a fair bet that in another 50 years HAL 9000 will still be in the future.

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