2001-A Space Odyssey

    16 - Hal




    But now Texas was invisible, and even the United States was hard to see. Though the low-thrust plasma drive had long since been closed down, Discovery was still coasting with her slender arrowlike body pointed away from Earth, and all her high-powered optical gear was oriented toward the outer planets, where her destiny lay.


    There was one telescope, however, that was permanently aimed at Earth. It was mounted like a gunsight on the rim of the ship's long-range antenna, and checked that the great parabolic bowl was rigidly locked upon its distant target. While Earth remained centered in the crosswires, the vital communication link was intact, and messages could come and go along the invisible beam that lengthened more than two million miles with every day that passed.


    At least once in every watch period Bowman would lock homeward through the antenna-alignment telescope. As Earth was now far back toward the sun, its darkened hemisphere faced Discovery, and on the central display screen the planet appeared as a dazzling silver crescent, like another Venus.


    It was rare that any geographical features could be identified in that ever-shrinking arc of light, for cloud and haze concealed them, but even the darkened portion of the disk was endlessly fascinating. It was sprinkled with shining cities; sometimes they burned with a steady light, sometimes they twinkled like fireflies as atmospheric tremors passed over them.


    There were also periods when, as the Moon swung back and forth in its orbit, it shone down like a great lamp upon the darkened seas and continents of Earth.


    Then, with a thrill of recognition, Bowman could often glimpse familiar coastlines, shining in that spectral lunar light. And sometimes, when the Pacific was calm, he could even see the moonglow shimmering across its face; and he would remember nights beneath the palm trees of tropical lagoons.


    Yet he had no regrets for these lost beauties. He had enjoyed them all, in his thirty-five years of life; and he was determined to enjoy them again, when he returned rich and famous. Meanwhile, distance made them all the more precious.


    The sixth member of the crew cared for none of these things, for it was not human. It was the highly advanced HAL 9000 computer, the brain and nervous system of the ship.


    Hal (for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, no less) was a masterwork of the third computer breakthrough. These seemed to occur at intervals of twenty years, and the thought that another one was now imminent already worried a great many people.


    The first had been in the 1940s, when the long-obsolete vacuum tube had made possible such clumsy, high-speed morons as ENIAC and its successors. Then, in the 1960s, solid-state microelectronics had been perfected. With its advent, it was clear that artificial intelligences at least as powerful as Man's need be no larger than office desks - if one only knew how to construct them.


    Probably no one would ever know this; it did not matter. In the 1980s, Minsky and Good had shown how neural networks could be generated automatically - self replicated - in accordance with any arbitrary learning program. Artificial brains could be grown by a process strikingly analogous to the development of a human brain. In any given case, the precise details would never be known, and even if they were, they would be millions of times too complex for human understanding. Whatever way it worked, the final result was a machine intelligence that could reproduce - some philosophers still preferred to use the word “mimic” - most of the activities of the human brain - and with far greater speed and reliability. It was extremely expensive, and only a few units of the HAL9000 series had yet been built; but the old jest that it would always be easier to make organic brains by unskilled labor was beginning to sound a little hollow.


    Hal had been trained for this mission as thoroughly as his human colleagues - and at many times their rate of input, for in addition to his intrinsic speed, he never slept. His prime task was to monitor the life-support systems, continually checking oxygen pressure, temperature, hull leakage, radiation, and all the other interlocking factors upon which the lives of the fragile human cargo depended. He could carry out the intricate navigational corrections, and execute the necessary flight maneuvers when it was time to change course. And he could watch over the hibernators, making any necessary adjustments to their environment and doling out the minute quantities of intravenous fluids that kept them alive.


    The first generations of computers had received their inputs through glorified typewriter keyboards, and had replied through high-speed printers and visual displays. Hal could do this when necessary, but most of his communication with his shipmates was by means of the spoken word. Poole and Bowman could talk to Hal as if he were a human being and he would reply in the perfect idiomatic English he had learned during the fleeting weeks of his electronic childhood.


    Whether Hal could actually think was a question which had been settled by the British mathematician Alan Turing back in the 1940s. Turing had pointed out that, if one could carry out a prolonged conversation with a machine - whether by typewriter or microphone was immaterial - without being able to distinguish between its replies and those that a man might give, then the machine was thinking, by any sensible definition of the word. Hal could pass the Turing test with ease.


    The time might even come when Hal would take command of the ship. In an emergency, if no one answered his signals, he would attempt to wake the sleeping members of the crew, by electrical and chemical stimulation. If they did not respond, he would radio Earth for further orders.


    And then, if there was no reply from Earth, he would take what measures he deemed necessary to safeguard the ship and to continue the mission - whose real purpose he alone knew, and which his human colleagues could never have guessed.


    Poole and Bowman had often humorously referred to themselves as caretakers or janitors aboard a ship that could really run itself. They would have been astonished, and more than a little indignant, to discover how much truth that jest contained.