“Good Afternoon Gentlemen”

hal-9000-eye.jpg “I am a HAL 9000 Computer. I became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois, on the 12th of January 1997. My instructor was Dr Chandra, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you. It’s called “Daisy.” “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy…”

Almost thirty years ago, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke collaborated on what was to become one of the great science fiction movies of all time – 2001: A Space Odyssey. If we were to take it literally, then somewhere in Illinois a reasoning computer is stumbling through a pathetic song as it takes its first steps towards cognition. With 2001 held aloft as one of the positive views of future society, and set a relatively short distance into the future, it’s worth pausing a few moments to reflect on the vision then and reality.

Space travel has not progressed far since the moon landings. In 2001, we see Pan Am shuttle aircraft ferrying passengers to a space station and the moon on a regular basis, in silent flight. In contrast, NASA’s clunky collection of Orbiters struggle to average a flight a month. Where the movie assembled a manned flight to Jupiter, no human has actually been out of Earth’s orbit (and returned) since the early 1970s. But there’s a similar scenario which may drive mankind back into space: new evidence of life once on Mars has nations talking together to plan a large-scale mission there, much as the discovery of an alien artifact on the moon of 2001 initiated the Jupiter mission.

2001 alluded to mass famine caused by overpopulation; today, it appears that famine is with us, but due more to political practices and rapacious farming. The political situation in China bears a striking resemblance to modern day reality: where the protaganists of 2001 were concerned about possible Chinese nuclear arms sales, today’s China offers ballistic missiles to anyone with the requisite billions.

But computers is my focus, and 2001’s star was HAL – the Heuristic Algorithmic Learning machine (everyone involved has always maintained that the H, A and L being just before I, B and M in the alphabet was mere coincidence). There are some parallels – and 2001 took the uses of technology to the point where the products were branded. Computers are talking, after a fashion, and voice recognition systems are improving: by 2001, we may well be able to dictate to a machine without the days and days of personal training currently involved. Whether or not this ever approaches the speed of typing is a moot point. Machine Intelligence is far from an oxymoron, and expert systems that have been similarly trained are capable of delivering a speedy “reasoned” response to a question laid down with that system’s parameters.

Ma Bell has been broken up and melded into new telecommunications conglomerates, but their video phones are taking shape in the form of Internet Videoconferencing. With the saturation of personal computers, it’s conceivable that by 2001 regular phone calls could include video, and society will have a whole new legion of crank callers to deal with. I think Video Telephony will be with us in 2001 despite the fact that two-thirds of the Earth’s population have never used a telephone.

But I feel that, in many ways, we have been let down by the promise of technology. Where 2001 demonstrated interactive computers able to talk, reason, and even read lips, today’s computers are fumbling with merely converting a page of text to speech. Perhaps the monolithic approach is the difference: 2001’s computers were omnipresent mainframes hooked up to typewriters, but barely a printer in sight. Contrast that to the doubling of paper consumption since the term “paperless office”was mooted (by Xerox, of all companies).

2001 promoted a scenario where computers lived in the background, helping people with simple day-to-day tasks, and allowing humans to demonstrate their creativity. Instead, we have computers that own desks
– and a bevy of consumption, where aggressive marketing compels people to consume computers and replace them as soon as the feature set is no longer enough to keep up with the Joneses. Instead of concentrating on the tasks at hand, modern operating systems are loaded with so many bells, whistles and geegaws in the name of market share that many individuals spend more time administering to their computer and learning it than being productive with it. They remain far more complicated than they need to be – and all for features that never get used.

Practically the only functional similarity ín computers between the vision of 2001 and today’s reality is the ability to beat humans at chess, and I think that’s sad. They promise so much more.

I think Wired Magazine said it best: In 2001, your computer wanted to kill you. In 1997, you want to kill your computer.

Bring on the millenium.

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