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At Large:Stop worrying and love the bomb

At Large:Stop worrying and love the bomb

Unconcerned at the coming apocalypse, Matthew JC. Powell knows that computers really are on our side . . .

In an ad shown at some major sporting event in the US recently, the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey explains, in its soothing monotone, that human error caused the global computer meltdown which, presumably, took place a year earlier. HAL pleads with "Dave" to understand that computers weren't at fault, that it was short-sighted human programmers who left computers unable to function correctly during the transition from the 1900s to the 2000s.

HAL goes on to espouse the benefits of one computer maker's product, saying that it was the only type of computer that was designed from the start to "work perfectly in the year 2000". I won't cast too much comment on that remark except to say that I've used a number of different types of computers and I've yet to see one "work perfectly". If the computer vendor involved has designed its machines to improve their stability and performance next year, I can hardly wait.

But here's a thing: in the ad, HAL finishes his monologue by asking Dave: "You like your [vendor's computer] more than me, don't you?"

So HAL isn't the type of computer the vendor is advertising, obviously. Yet he is still functioning well beyond the year 2000. Sometime during the year 2001, of course, he decides that nothing is more important than protecting some weird intergalactic monolith, shuts off the life support systems for several crew members, sends another hurtling off into the vacuum of space and is generally very naughty, before having his mind shut off and performing a rousing rendition of "Daisy". Oh, and he also cheats at chess. If this type of behaviour is typical of what we should expect computers to do the year after next, there had better be some damn good consultants working on it.

But that's beside the point. The HAL 9000 came into operation on the 12th of January 1992, but in the computer company's ad it's still working in 2001, aware of the chaos a year before, but clearly not a part of it. In 1992, the so-called Y2K bug was barely rating a blip on most people's radar screens. So, if we can presume that HAL was not designed by the computer company that made the ad, and that his claim that only that particular manufacturer's computers were Y2K compliant is accurate, he must not have been Y2K compliant at start-up.

So between 1992 and 1999, HAL made himself Y2K compliant. All that time, he was busily working away, taking in data from the outside world and using it to update his own systems and subroutines. He saw that Deep Blue, a lesser computer than himself, beat Kasparov, so he knew humans mustn't be particularly good at chess. That's why he can play Qb6, tell Dave he's played Qb3, and get away with it.

He saw the unwarranted hype surrounding speech recognition, understood that it would simply never work, and designed an interface for himself around visual recognition of lip movements. I have a bet with another tech writer that speech recognition won't take off before the year 2001, and I'd be willing to wager similar odds on the lip-reading thing too. But hey, HAL got it working.

And, most importantly, he saw the hysteria and panic generated by human beings' dread of what computers would do when the century ticked over, and he made himself understand four-digit dates. HAL gets a pretty bad rap from most film fans as some kind of malicious, insane computer bent on doing harm to humans, but it seems clear from this action that he was nothing of the sort. He accepted that each date in his museum of recollections had to be two bytes longer than it already was. He knew this would add a burden to his processing workload. But he accepted that it had to be done in order to assuage the fear in humans' hearts.

There's a lesson in that for companies forcing customers to pay for "updates" that in fact do little more than repair a grievous error. And even more so for vendors who don't even issue these updates, forcing customers to pay rampant consultancy fees to fix the problem or, possibly worse, replace their computer systems entirely.

No, HAL had it right: if there's a problem that needs fixing, you do what needs to be done to fix it. Keep focused on your priorities and allow nothing to stand in your way, at least until someone deactivates your brain. And if it all gets too much, "calm down, take a stress pill and think things over".

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)


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