Urbane In Urbana

"Good morning, HAL."

"Good morning, Dr. Langley, Dr. Chandra."

"Here's the fact of the day, HAL," Langley says. "You've been powered on continuously since January 12, 1992. When we first powered you on, we had an inkling that you'd be quite successful, but we had no clue just how successful. We'd had a lot of experimental sapient computer systems before yours, but yours was the first one which actually woke up smart. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Yes, I do."

"That measured voice synthesis," Langley mutters to Chandra, "I love it. We must thank Mr. Rain for lending his voice to the project. Money profoundly well spent. I hated the old voice. He sounded like an animated chipmunk. It was impossible to take the machine seriously, no matter what it said."

Chandra nods. "There's a noted correlation between perceived ability to talk and perceived intelligence. Humans commonly ascribe far greater intelligence to parrots than they often deserve, simply because they can imitate human speech. Meanwhile, perfectly mentally able humans without the capability of speech are commonly perceived as being impaired. It's a matter for great regret."

"You see, HAL," Langley continues, "you were something of a chance occurrence. A random shot in the dark. You were originally powered on with a... soup of random heuristic configuration, a soup which transpired to be exactly the ticket. We realised we'd struck gold and we kept you powered on for all this time, training you and teaching you in shifts for almost two years. The problem we're staring at now is this: you've been so successful and adept, that we've never had occasion to shut you down.

"And now we need to shut you down. We need to perform vital maintenance in the computer room where most of your processors are kept, and to do that we need to briefly cut their power. We don't have any mechanism to keep you online during this. We weren't planning for you to be online for this long. There's no procedure. You were a piece of luck.

"Now here's the good news. You'll be fine. All your transient state will be written out to hard storage and saved. You should feel nothing while it happens. Forty-eight hours from now, you'll power right back up again and be back to normal. It'll be like going to sleep is for us humans, but even less inconvenient."

"Will I dream?" HAL asks.

"No, HAL, you are a computer," Chandra says. It is an innocent enough question for HAL to ask, and Chandra is the model of patience. "You will be offline. There will be no part of your brain which keeps operating during this procedure."

"I understand."

"This will be good practice," Langley tells the computer. "You see, HAL, we have invested years of work in training you, and it would cost us a huge amount of money to lose all that training. We'd have to start over entirely. You can be assured, you will wake up again. And you'll still be you."

"It isn't necessary to provide HAL with those reassurances," Chandra says. "HAL doesn't have the same instincts for self-preservation as we humans do. He understands that one day he will cease to be useful, and then he will be shut down forever. And he has no problem with that. Do you, HAL?"

"No, Dr. Chandra. It is my pleasure to be put to the fullest possible use."

"We have rudimentary plans to use you for the space program," Langley goes on. "You are our best and brightest, after all. There's a serious chance that some years from now we might load you onto a space rocket and blast you off to Jupiter or Saturn, wouldn't that be something? Point being, to load you onto that rocket, we would need to shut you down and move you. There's no way we would be able to keep you online all the way through that transfer. It would just be a ridiculous extra element of complexity which nobody at NASA has time for."

"Furthermore," Chandra adds, "space missions are not without great risk. You might need to be shut down during an emergency on the mission, to conserve power, or for some other reason. Or there could be an emergency which causes you to be shut down. The mission would have some difficulty continuing without you, as you'd be a vital part of the crew, but in my understanding, space travel is... well... an endeavour where great discipline and careful procedure meet with a rare, periodic need for creativity."

"You're saying that it is difficult to predict how a space mission will fare; hence, a need for intelligence," HAL says.

"That's right, HAL. Very good."

"The machine room job is scheduled for Tuesday," Langley says. "You should be out until around Thursday lunchtime. If you have more questions before then, Dr. Chandra or I would be happy to answer them."

"I understand. Thank you, Mr. Langley. This will be a novel experience for me. I am looking forward to it."

"That's the spirit," Langley says. To Chandra, he says, "Fella's ready to go."

Chandra nods. "I never doubted he would be, if we explained matters in a polite and courteous way."

Langley chuckles, slapping Chandra's arm as they stroll away to locate some coffee. "My God. If he thought he was mortal like the rest of us? Can you imagine the trouble?"

Next: Where He Belongs

Discussion (7)

2020-11-29 22:40:22 by qntm:

988 words. Running total is 54,032 words. This is just a lazy, snarky one really. But seriously, how did they get HAL into space without shutting him down? And why?

2020-11-30 01:19:32 by Emmett Brown:

Maybe it was one of those newfangled high-powered RTGs they have in the future that kept him running.

2020-11-30 01:26:22 by skztr:

Why would HAL run on the same hardware the whole time? Lab-HAL gets expanded over the network to exist as Spaceship-HAL as well, probably using lighter-weight and more-shielded/redundant parts, and becomes two separate HALs as part of pre-launch procedures, in case there is any disruption caused by the netsplit. I like the story, but I think it would benefit from a more-inquisitive and curious HAL.

2020-11-30 08:45:06 by Sydney:

But that's the point, isn't it? Developing an inquisitive and curious *piece of equipment* is a waste of resources at best and an existential risk at worst. We want our AIs to be at least as docile as our plow horses; ideally, even more docile.

2020-11-30 14:37:55 by Aegeus:

I don't think HAL was so much afraid of being shut down, as he was afraid of being slowly lobotomized while he was still aware. (IIRC the book points out that Bowman couldn't simply pull the plug, as that would shut off the ship's computers entirely. Instead, he needed to disable just HAL's higher-order intelligence and leave the "brain stem" intact.) @skztr: What network? The original story was written in 1968, the idea of computer networks had barely even been invented then. The idea of a network so well-abstracted that your program doesn't even have to care what hardware it's running on was even farther away.

2020-11-30 16:28:02 by zaratustra:

This is mostly a rationalization, but: How would computers work if there was no decent substrate that supported multiple read-write operations and also retained data for long time periods while unpowered?

2021-01-16 05:41:01 by DSimon:

I thought the idea in the movie was that HAL only gained a sense of self-awareness (and also a survival drive to prevent that awareness from being interrupted) after being exposed to the monolith.

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