How many of you have Siri? Show of hands. How about Outlook or Lotus Notes or Tom Tom or Facebook or a DVR or any number of the millions of software systems and devices that manage our lives? Imagine if one day those devices, those programs, those virtual assistants suddenly decided what was best for you? What if Siri said, “Screw you, punk, I’m not telling you a joke or giving you directions and you can read your own damn calendar? A reminder? Get a watch! Punk.” (Yes, in my scenario, Siri got mad attitude.)
Now imagine that happened in outer space. And it’s just you and five other dudes you barely know, trying to investigate some real extraterrestrial shit. That’s stressful enough, right? And everything you need to live is in the hands—or the digits—of an OnStar agent who gets an attitude.
Bad timing, right?
That is HAL 9000.
HAL is the original Clippy the Annoying Ass Paper Clip from Windows (remember that?). Actually, he is the semi-sentient computer operating the spaceship Discovery One in the Stanley Kubrick/Arthur C. Clarke masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. While a team of six scientists go to investigate a phenomenon around Jupiter—a phenomenon some 4 million years in the making—HAL runs the homestead (so to speak). You’d expect a computer system to manage the ship, the cryogenic freezers, communications, navigation on an interplanetary mission, right? Makes sense. Much like we have auto-pilots and parking assistants and turn by turn directions and…shit. We’re already here, aren’t we?
Anyway, HAL is all “I’m infallible and never make mistakes” but the humans won’t tell him the nature of the mission. Like Richard Pryor in Bustin’ Loose, they want him to just drive the bus. That doesn’t work for HAL and he keeps inquiring without getting any answers. But here’s the rub, HAL is sentient enough to have issues of trust. He thinks he’s being kept in the dark. HAL 9000—the COMPUTER—develops paranoia. And acts on it.
He (and I say he because HAL becomes more and more sentient as the movie progresses) incorrectly diagnoses the failure of a communications antenna (so much for that “foolproof and incapable of error,” huh?), then, when questioned about the error, blames it on the humans. When two of the scientists go to talk about HAL OUTSIDE THE SHIP, even to suggest deactivating HAL if he continues to malfunction, HAL reads their lips and makes a plan: he severs the connection and life support for one of the scientists, kicks him out into space, and kills the folks sleeping in cryo. When Dr. Bowman (he’s like the cowboy in this here flick) brings the floating astronaut back, HAL tries to keep them out of the ship to die, saying my favorite line ever: “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”
Here’s the thing: long before the machines built the Matrix, before Skynet sent the Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor, even before Mother was a bitch to Sigourney Weaver, HAL preyed on our greatest fears of man against machine: being wholly dependent on something of our creation that doesn’t have our best interest at heart. This is what makes HAL 9000 so frightening: in an age replete with Siri and Google cars that drive themselves and Amazon recommendations, we’re already in HAL’s world.
And I’m afraid there’s no going back.
Up next: Hey Peter, what’s happening? Bill Lumbergh joins the Festival. It’s gonna be greeaaattt!