Truth Is Stranger Than [Science] Fiction
A Review of David Stork’s HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality
In a tradition that provides a welcome relief from the petty infighting that characterizes much of academic discourse, younger professors sometimes honor their elders (imagine that!), on retirement or on the occasion of an advanced birthday, by contributing to a collection of essays. Generally, the collection deals with aspects of the elder’s work, explaining why it was important, building on it, extending it, connecting it to other fields or areas of inquiry. The new book edited by David Stork, HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, is such a collection of essays, but the person whose work is honored by the collection is not an academic but rather the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, now in his seventies and living in Sri Lanka. And the birthday being celebrated is not Clarke’s but rather that of a fictional computer—HAL, the onboard computer of the Discovery mission in the screenplay on which Clarke collaborated with the director Stanley Kubrick for the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The screenplay, later made into a novel with the same title, was based on Clarke's earlier short story “The Sentinel.”
In the novel we are told that HAL sprang into life on January 12, 1997. Stork, chief scientist at the Ricoh California Research Center, where he does research on pattern recognition by computers, and visiting professor of psychology at Stanford University, assembled a team of luminaries in computer research—experts in artificial intelligence, supercomputer design, computational linguistics, computer chess, philosophy of mind, computer speech, interface design, and other topics—and asked them to assess how far we have come, since Clarke’s movie and book, toward making Clarke’s vision of an intelligent, emotional, chatty, lip-reading, chess-playing, and finally murderous supercomputer a reality. Stork’s book contains fascinating essays by and interviews with Murray Campbell, Daniel Dennett, Ravishankar Iyer, David Kuck, Raymond Kurzweil, Douglas Lenat, Marvin Minsky, Donald Norman, Joseph Olive, Rosalind Picard, Azriel Rosenfeld, Roger Schank, David Wilkins, and Stephen Wolfram, as well as contributions by Stork and by Arthur C. Clarke himself.
It is not surprising that Clarke should be so honored. There are two kinds of science fiction writer. One kind, who might more properly be called a writer of science fantasy, creates wildly improbable stories that break all the rules known to science today. An example of a writer of this kind is Ray Bradbury, who in one story, for example, writes of a person who becomes obsessed by the fact that he has an internal skeleton and finally has the monstrous thing removed. As Stork points out in his introductory essay, most screen science fiction is of this kind. Ships well lighted from all angles scream through space with stars zipping by them. They blast other ships with laser beams. The other ships blow up. Smoke billows, and the debris falls toward the bottom of the screen. Of course, as Stork points out, none of this would actually happen in space. Stars are too far apart to appear to move relative to a ship. A laser beam would not be seen in a vacuum in which there was nothing for the beam to bounce off. There is no atmosphere for smoke to billow in and no gravity to pull debris downward.
In contrast, Clarke is the sort of science fiction writer who tries to extrapolate from real science and to shed light on what might actually be possible in the future, and Clarke can claim credit for one truly important scientific achievement. It was he who conceived of the idea of geosynchronous satellites—ones that orbit at such a speed that they remain in the same position relative to the earth and so make possible modern global telecommunications. Because Clarke was careful to make use of real science in his book, looking back on the predictions in his book and movie is instructive. We can learn a lot about the validity of scientific prognostication by looking at where Clarke got it right and where he got it wrong.
How Close Are Today’s Computers to HAL?Obviously, we do not have, today, anything like the computer that Clarke envisioned. The artificial intelligence initiatives heralded with such optimism by Alan Newell, Herbert Simon, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, and others in the 1950s proved vastly more complex than anyone at the time imagined. Teaching computers to do difficult tasks such as making medical diagnoses or predicting where one might find oil proved to be much easier than teaching them to do so-called simple tasks such as recognizing faces or communicating in English or Japanese. This is because these “simple tasks” are actually astonishingly complicated. They seem simple to us only because they are carried out automatically, below the level of consciousness, by the society of incredibly complex minicomputers in our brains. Still, as the essays in Stork’s book point out, we have made significant progress toward creating computers with the astonishing characteristics of Clarke's HAL.
In “Could We Build HAL? Supercomputer Design,” David Kuck explains that “To be as large and powerful as he is described, HAL would have to be a parallel system,” and today we have, in fact, built large, massively parallel computers that actually have greater memory storage capacity than Clarke predicted:
In “The Talking Computer: Text to Speech Synthesis,” Bell Laboratories scientist Joseph P. Olive explains, in considerable detail, the complexities of and approaches to teaching computers to produce intelligible speech from written text. Olive summarizes as follows:
At Bell Laboratories we have developed a text-to-speech synthesizer that is highly intelligible in several languages, including English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Navajo. . . . [Y]et, although capable of both reading or generating such complex text as e-mail or newspaper stories, the synthesizer does not replicate the human voice. It has a distinct “machine” sound. (124)
Another expert in computer speech, Raymond Kurzweil, addresses this problem in “When Will HAL Understand What We Are Saying? Computer Speech Recognition and Understanding.” Here are Kurzweil’s predictions:
In “From 2001 to 2001: Common Sense and the Mind of HAL,” Douglas Lenat emphasizes the importance of building in a computer a real-world knowledge base, something that he and his colleagues at the Microelectronics and Computer Consortium have been doing with a program called CYC. The idea is to create a means for representing knowledge and to “prime the knowledge pump” of a computer by providing it with the millions of bits of information that a person knows, such as the facts that “Napoleon died on St. Helena” and “Wellington was greatly saddened.” Knowing such things, a computer will be able to infer, as a person does, “that Wellington heard about Napoleon’s death, that Wellington outlived Napoleon, and so on” (203). The availability of such common sense is a large factor in our ability to understand language and to function intelligently. Lenat’s program “to bring a HAL-like being into existence’ consists of three steps:
2. On top of this base, construct the ability to communicate in a natural language, such as English. Let the HAL-to-be use that ability to vastly enlarge its knowledge base.
3. Eventually, as it reaches the frontier of human knowledge in some area, there will be no one left to talk to about it, so it will need to perform experiments to make further headway in that area. (203)
ReferenceClarke, Arthur C. 2001: A Space Odyssey. London: Hutchinson/Star, 1968.
---. The Sentinel (Masterworks of Science Fiction). New York: Berkley, 1986.
Stork, David, ed. HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality.
Cambridge, MA: MIT P., 1997.
|Questions for Discussion and Review
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6. In 2001, the computer HAL defeats Frank Poole in a game of chess. Was Clarke correct in predicting that computers would one day be able to beat human opponents? Are modern chess-playing supercomputers like HAL? Explain.