Hasta la vista, HAL
By R. D. Flavin

11-7-2014


Arnie from 2015's Terminator (#5): Genisys and the HAL 3000 from 2001: A Space Oddesy.

Dave Bowman: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

From 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick from a screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, inspired by Clarke's 1951 short story, "Sentinel of Eternity." and the 1968 novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey..

     The recent warning by Pay-Pal and SpaceX co-founder and wealthy genius, Elon Musk ($11.7 billion net worth), that we closely watch the current and future work being done to construct (or 'program') a true artificial intelligence (hereafter, AI) was both rational and terrifying. Most are familiar with at least one science fiction short story, novel, or film which featured a computer or AI gone bad and the inherent havoc possible should a 'machine' turn against humanity. “Hasta la vista, HAL,” anything built or 'programmed' can be undone. I guess that could include us as well...

     I believe most of us can basically agree on the definition of 'artificial', but 'intelligence' is perceived and defined differently among many for assorted reasons. I favor a capacity to understand, yet even plants react, communicate, and 'understand', say, when they are being eaten or attacked in some way. I prefer sentience or self-awareness as this not only indicates reaction, but establishes personal identity rather than group (or hive, colony, herd, etc.) mentality or response. So, manufactured awareness with an independent capability of action. We're not talking a toaster, here, but rather a machine (or 'program') which could do good or evil at its own choosing. Hence, the terrifying inclusion mentioned above.

 
Oldowan hand axe ca. 2.6 mya and the Antikythera mechanism ca. 150 to 100 BCE.

     We've had tools for a very long time, perhaps before Homo habilis ca. 2.33 to 1.44 million years ago (as have other animals), with the Oldowan hand axe ca. 2.6 mya, which I personally regard as a 'tool;, though some would claim the hand axe as a 'machine' or device with one or more parts and using energy to induce or produce function. It's a tool just like a hammer or screwdriver... Now 'machines' are a tad more complicated.

     Personally, I reject Homer's mention (Iliad 5.749-750) as an early example of a machine and regard it as a myth of Hera using her divine powers to open the gates or doors of Heaven. Hephaestus, on the other hand, was most famous for making machines which moved. Though I have the utmost respect for Pindar (ca. 522 – ca. 443 BCE) the mentions of automatons (Greek αὐτόματον -- "acting of one's own will") in his 7th Olympic Ode are all later Greco-Roman reconstructions, as what's extant are mere fragments. Still, automatons were quite popular in the Greco-Roman Classical period (Ovid and Pygmalion are easy examples) and early accounts of Egypt during the 15th century BCE and China during the 10th century BCE, must be accepted or discarded as one will. The Throne of Solomon whose feet are claimed to have moved as he ascended the throne can be traced back to the 4th to 6th century CE, and with the Jewish Encyclopedia guessing ca, 11th century CE. Automatons were widespread with their gears and movable parts and I wouldn't be surprised if the mysterious Antikythera mechanism (see above) was once part of a Classical period automaton.

     If you'll pardon me, I'll bypass the tears of blood and other such statuary phenomena from the Middle Ages... Everyone enjoys a good parlor trick..

     The contemporaries, Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200-1280 CE) and Roger Bacon (ca. 1214-1294 CE) are both reputed to have made machines in the shape of a head which could speak, but no documentation or personal accounts exist to support such claims. Clockwork gears and puppetry most certainly combined for the amusement of the wealthy, yet few working representations have survived (other than music boxes and cuckoo-clocks). Now,from ancient times through the nineteenth century, electricity was investigated. [Note: The 16th century tale of the Golem was animated by the four-letter tetragrammaton (the Name of G*d) inscribed on his forehead.]

     Ben Franklin was far from alone in his investigation of electricity in 1752. I've always regarded Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as a reaction to the ongoing experiments with electricity and the growth of the pre-scientific movement.

     And, with anal exactitude, our English word 'robot' was first used by the Czech writer and playwright, Karel Čapek in his drama, RUR Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (1920; Prague: Vydalo Aventinum). Since then, we've seen robots portrayed in many different ways. Most remarkable was Isaac Asimov's 1950 collection of short stories, I, Robot (New York: Gnome Press), which featured the famous “Three Laws of Robotics.”

1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm

2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law..

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

     The following year, 1951, saw the release of the classic science fiction film, The Day The Earth Stood Still, with its memorable line: "Klaatu barada nikto."  Translation guesses include: “Don't destroy Earth,” but ...no one knows for sure.

 
The Mashinenmensch. Maria, and the android, Lt. Commander Data.

     Avoiding discussion of Baum's the Tin Woodman, we've encountered many cinematic automatrons over the years. There was Maria, the Mashinmensh in Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, various robots from The Jetsons to Lost in Space, and my personal fav, the sentient android from Star Trek: The Next Generation television series (as well as four subsequent motion pictures), Lieutenant Commander Data. Not all sentient androids are bad, of course...

     And, as these things go, it wasn't long before 'Worst Case Scenarios' developed. Based upon Dennis Feltham Jones's 1966 novel, Colossus (London: Rupert Hart Davis), the 1970 science fiction and thriller film, Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which a computer becomes sentient and attempts to take over the world. With a hop, skip, and a jump, we arrive at Skynet, the sentient artificial intelligence system, which nukes mankind and sets up the 1984 Terminator movie, its sequels, and a television series. Damn, those AI systems seem to cause a lot of trouble!

     As far as the HAL 9000, manners prevent sharing my true feelings...

     Returning to Elon Musk's warning about the current work being done attempting to create a true artificial intelligence, I not only agree, but wish that such work be stalled until such a time as we can work off-world. I would likewise recommend further work with certain genetics, nano-technology, and anything which could potentially destroy humankind be done off-world. Call me paranoid, but as they say, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Hoping my coffee-maker doesn't attack me in my sleep,

Rick

Return to