HAL lives amongst us

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 December, 2016
Editorial: 54
Fecha de publicación original: 14 enero, 1997

Date of publication: 14/01/1997. Editorial 054.

Three may keep a secret if one of them is dead

The fictional birthday of HAL 9000, the machine conceived of by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrik to control the spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey and which “should be functional by 12 January 1997”, has sparked off a new wave of re-examinations of the world of computers, in general, and hypotheses about Artificial Intelligence (AI), in particular. The surprising thing is that the vast majority of commentators have not dared to go beyond the framework of that fiction, despite the fact that they find themselves in a world profoundly different to that of thirty years ago (the book “The Sentinel”, and the film, appeared in 1968). When the film was first shown and left us all wide-mouthed in wonder, man had not yet set foot on the moon (although outside the US the two events, the film and the flight of Apollo XI, seemed to meld into one), the PC did not as yet exist (the first prototype in “strictu sensu” accompanied Armstrong on his historic mission) and 99,999999% of the spectators had never had any physical contact with a computer. These machines were at the the time immense unwieldy objects operated by privileged minds whose job, amongst other extraordinary things, was precisely that: to launch space ships or calculate events so esoteric that they could only be of use to the military. No ordinary mortal had ever touched a computer, nor did they expect to do so in their lifetime, and what damn use would that have been anyway. Consequently, HAL 9000 was pure fascination.

Today, things have changed tremendously. So much so that the standpoint of those who have used the talkative machine’s birthday to reaffirm their humanity as opposed to the dry world of computers and AI of thirty years ago, seems almost laughable. Over the last few days we have heard the 64 million dollar question posed hundreds of times: How close –or far away– are we from a computer like HAL, capable of expressing its feelings in florid language and of trying to control its own actions even beyond the will of man? The conclusion has been unanimous: we are very far from it. Today’s machines have improved enormously over the last few decades, of course, but they can only just mutter a few pre-taught phrases and are not even able to do the simple task of taking dictated notes satisfactorily.

As far as the capacity for reflection is concerned, what can one say? It is easier to envisage the day that people voluntarily stop using cars in the city than a computer being able to compose a single verse of poetryG (which reminds me of a very funny cartoon by Chumy Chumez in PCWeek: a woman is showing a man the wonders of her computer and irritated by her enthusiasm, he exclaims: “Yes, all very clever but it can’t write Don Quixote”, “Well, neither can you”, she replies). The only piece of furniture that mars our idyllic vision of the supremacy of man over his own cybernetic creations is the chess machine. There are only a few grand masters still capable of keeping up the side of biology over machines. But I suspect that if Deep Blue manages to turn the tables on Kasparov in one of the battles planned before 2001, that thorn in the side will drive a great big stake into the self-esteem of quite a lot of people.

It seems that HAL’s tree hasn’t allowed us to see the wood behind it. These days it would be difficult to find the 0,00001% of the population that keeps its digital virginity intact. From the Nintendo generation to farmers, right through all sectors of the job market –employed or not–, we live in almost permanent contact with the computer world, whether it be through the microwave, our sound system, electronic cards, cash points, bar codes in the supermarket, the electronic dashboard of a car, banking operations, the satellites that support this building, etc. And, in some cases, the thing even takes the form of a computer with a keyboard, a screen and all that. To add insult to injury, now it’s even connected to networks. This world did not exist nor did we even get a peek at it in the work of Clarke-Kubrik. There the computer was a phenomenally bulky machine, almost as big as the space ship itself. Today that scenery would be unimaginable even in a lower middle-class home.

However, let us not go beyond the threshold of the space odyssey: it would also be unimaginable in today’s exploration of the Universe. Everything has been physically reduced, but psychically expanded. The space ship Deep Space One (DS1), in NASA’s New Millennium program, weighs just 900 pounds, but its computer “Remote Agent” will be capable of controlling it almost without any human assistance when it becomes functional in July 1998. The interesting thing is that this is not a kind of AI but, instead, a system with the sufficient capacity for logical reasoning to control all the parameters of the spaceship and take all the consequences of its actions into account. As a result of this capacity for “reasoning”, the control centre on earth will be almost “pocket-sized”, despite the fact that the ship is off to meet an asteroid, a comet and finally Mars. On the assembly line of these programmes there are some that can already interact with the environment, analyse it and on finding something new are able to communicate this information immediately (or so we hope) to the scientists concerned. In order to do this, they are connected through networks to a multitude of different data banks, which they will explore even though they are millions of kilometres from the Earth.

Today –and those who using Hal as a pretext have pictured a world governed by computers shouldn’t have missed this point– AI should perhaps be re-baptised as Net Intelligence (NI). It is a much more complex phenomenon from which not even the human body has escaped. One of the things derived from AI, the neural networks, tried (and tries) to imitate the hypothetical workings of the human central nervous system. Perhaps we have already crossed this threshold of the machine towards a “painless and non-invasive” symbiosis with the CNS itself. As opposed to the cyborg, which is half-man and half-machine (in corresponding respective quantities), through the nets we have begun to use the internal electrical currents of our own body. Tom Zimmerman, who previously manufactured the “data glove” which enabled us to operate Nintendo games with a simple movement of the hand in the air, has taken the first step. Now, he brings us the “personal area net”(PAN), a series of devices which use the electrical properties of our body to establish a data network which, at the same time, logically enough, is connected to “exobiotic” networks, such as the Internet. So, when one shakes hands with somebody, all the necessary information in those cases is transmitted to (or exchanged with) the other person: name, company, IP, e-mail, URL, telephone number and any other data deemed necessary.

At the moment, this information can be stored in the heel of one’s shoe and transferred to a PC later. How long will it be before this data can be stored in one of the folds of our digital prints (the fingerprint) to be read later by simply pressing the finger onto a thermal surface? Will computers be able to decide, on the spur of the moment, what information needs to be transmitted depending on the person we are meeting or, on the other hand, “hack” them to extract information stored in their bodies’ electrical currents? Who will make those decisions, the individual or the machine? And, really, what will be the machine and what the person in these circumstances? None of this is merely an entertaining science fiction game. The US military has been practising with devices of this kind in their “cyberwarriors” and in wars conducted in virtual environments over the last couple of years. Although some of these innovations may take a while to “leap” into the civilian sector, there is no doubt that HAL lives among us. The only thing is that his face has dramatically altered over time. It is no longer that ingenuous, psychedelic computer of the 60’s. Liberalism and uni-lineal thought have hardened his features…and his functions.

Translation: Bridget King.