AI Milestone: Happy (belated) Birthday, HAL!

When we conducted our survey of top AI in the movies, we didn't include HAL 9000. You may think it's an oversight, but really it's that HAL is such an icon that it would be almost unfair for any other AI to compete.  

HAL's legacy is more than just as a movie icon, but one that influenced technology, and our reaction to it, since 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted a half-century ago last week.  

In tech terms, what we see and hear on-screen is just the user interface. HAL's true function is to monitor and maintain the ship's systems, which means most of what HAL does we just don't see. If the movie were made today, we would consider the bulk of HAL to be happening in the cloud. 

As the New York Times points out, HAL's voice is such a part of American cinema canon that it's influenced almost every vocal AI since, including Siri and Alexa. Though, in a bit of wonderful turnabout, a YouTube video exists of Alexa playing the role of HAL and driving Dave Bowman crazy. And now you can even turn your Alexa into HAL; it's all a bit topsy-turvy.  

HAL was, for many Americans, their first exposure to artificial intelligence and one that included a calm yet icy presence that leaves you both fearful and reassured. When HAL says "I'm afraid I can't do that," you know it's the truth, even if it conveys a bit of human emotion that a computer could never actually feel.  

This sets the tone for what people start to expect from their computer systems. They expect a system that can not only provide them with information, but do so in a way that feels human. When we design a system, much of our machine learning and artificial intelligence happens behind the scenes. The user doesn't need to understand what is happening under the covers, they only need to get the information need when they need it. 

HAL set up AI for what it is today, and why people continue to both love and fear it. In fact, IBM came in to consult on the film and there was always a rumor (denied by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick) that the letters HAL were just a joke in that they came before IBM. Honestly, we always loved the idea that HAL includes Heuristically and Algorithmic. 

But the connection to IBM is driven home when Bowman finally disconnects HAL and we hear him slowly drift off to an oblivion while singing "Daisy Bell." That's an Easter Egg (before such things were common in films), harkening back to 1961, when an IBM 7094 computer became the first to "sing".  

Today, those of us who owe our careers to the AI vision created by HAL can only sing: "I'm half crazy all for the love of you". 

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