Welcome to the April issue of Hacker Chronicles!
This month’s feature is a review of the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve had it on my list ever since I started this newsletter. The review even covers the original 1948 short story The Sentinel. Enjoy!
Regards, John Wilander
A big chunk of this month’s writing time has been dedicated to research and organizing of information that eventually made it into my upcoming novel. It may be that I’ll get to the closing chapter short of my 90k word target since I’ve left a few meaty things on my TODO list. I also have one or two maps I need to produce.
This is where I am right now:
2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, and directed by Kubrick, is by many considered one of the best films ever made. It pioneered special effects and the space visuals are still stunning today. You should (re)watch it. Just be prepared for a slow start and a weird ending. :)
Spoiler Alert: Yeah, there are spoilers below.
Hacker Realism: ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacker Importance for the Plot: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Hacks: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
The short story The Sentinel is just 20 pages in paperback as re-published in The Lost Worlds of 2001 form 1972. It was written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1948 and first published in a magazine 1951.
The Sentinel is about lunar exploration and a crew member who spots something gleaming on a mountain side on the moon. He insists on leaving the vehicle to climb up and see what the shiny thing is. There he finds “a glittering, roughly pyramidical structure, twice as high as a man, that was set in the rock like a gigantic, many-faceted jewel.”
The pyramid and a signal it emits is considered proof of intelligent life that used to inhabit the Earth’s moon “before life had emerged from the seas of Earth.” Humans call it a sentinel—something to stand guard and keep watch.
They take the sentinel to Earth and are able to crack it open. At that point, its signal stops. The man who found it expects the owners, wherever they are in the universe, will notice and their emissaries will soon arrive.
The short story is all about intelligent life and space exploration, and has nothing on computers. That’s natural given it was written in the 1940s, and it’s interesting to think that computers entered the world of fiction sometime between then and when Kubrick and Clarke started collaborating on the movie script in 1964.
I was expecting a black monolith as in the movie but the original story had that glittering pyramid instead. I wonder if a pyramid in the movie would have had the same lasting legacy in the real world?
Arthur C. Clarke wrote the novel along with the development of the movie. It was published the same year and credits both Clarke and Kubrick as authors. There are some revealing differences between the novel and the movie. I will cover the most interesting part along with the movie review.
The movie starts with a twenty-minute segment on the dawn of humankind. Two tribes of great apes are fighting over access to a water hole. One of the tribes discovers an erect, black monolith. After touching it, they learn how to use tools and wins the fight against the other tribe.
The second start of the movie shows modern times, around the year 2000. Space exploration is well established, with a permanent space station above Earth and a casual aura around space travel. Computers too are commonplace and we see Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) authenticate through voice print identification and call his family with a Picturephone in a booth using some kind of payment or ID card.
Video calls and authentication via voice were astute predictions of the future. But personal computing was just not part of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s imagination. A shared phone booth and central computers don’t feel modern at all.
To some extent, the Internet became the central computer and we all have terminals we can use to access that central resource. A few things still remain possible with no central system though, such as games, drawing, book reading, and writing.
Dr. Floyd, chairman of the US National Council of Astronautics, is on his way to the Clavius Base, an American lunar outpost. According to Russians he meets on the space station above Earth, the base has been been unresponsive for two weeks and rumor has it they’ve been struck by a strange epidemic.
Floyd gets to the base where he apologizes to the personnel on-site that they’ve had to live under this epidemic cover story for secrecy reasons. They travel to a specific spot on the moon where a discovery of an ancient artifact has been made—a black monolith. They touch it and it emits a high-pitched signal.
By the mid-1960s, the Cold War and the Space Race was in full swing. It’s interesting to see how Kubrick and Clarke envision the relationship between Russia and USA would be at the end of the 20th century. The countries both make use of the space station above Earth but the US is keeping its seminal discovery on the moon secret.
In reality, the Soviet Union fell and in 1993 the USA and Russia announced what would become the International Space Station, ISS. The movie is not that far off where we ended up, except space travel and space life is nowhere close to the suave manner Floyd has when walking around on the space station.
Eighteen months after Floyd touches the monolith on the moon, an American spacecraft called Discovery One is bound for Jupiter. Onboard are Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) who are awake, and three other scientists in hibernation to not use excessive oxygen or nutrition.
To their help, and in technical control of the whole ship is their onboard computer system HAL 9000, called Hal. Hal understands human spoken language and speaks himself. He is manifested by a glowing red eye with a speaker grille underneath. It is said that Hal “can reproduce, although some still prefer mimic, most of the activities of the human brain and with incalculably greater speed and reliability.”
We get to see how movement and life on the ship works. How they stay in shape, what the food looks like, and the small space they have available.
Not much is said about the goals of the mission and you get the feeling that David and Frank are loyal and dutiful. Their country needs them to take this ship to Jupiter for further instructions.
They are already so far away from Earth that direct communication is not possible. It takes several minutes for roundtrip data transfer. Still, there is interest on Earth and a journalist interviews both the two men and the computer Hal.
Interviewer to Hal: You are the brain and central nervous system of the ship, and your responsibilities include watching over the men in hibernation. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?
Hal: The 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.
Interviewer: Despite your enormous intellect, are you ever frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out actions?
Hal: Not in the slightest bit. I enjoy working with people. I have a stimulating relationship with Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. My mission responsibilities range over the entire operation of the ship, so I am constantly occupied. I’m putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.
The figurative atmosphere on the ship is already a bit tense at the beginning. Part of that is the slowness of it all combined with silence in space. Another part is the omnipresent Hal whose voice is soothing to an extent where it becomes patronizing. The focus on Hal’s infallibility and his relationship with humans is foreboding.
It’s hard to think how one would react to such extended space travel with zero chance of a rescue mission should something fail catastrophically. Just like real world astronauts need stable, collaborative personalities, I assume David and Frank have been picked for their ability to endure such a journey.
Hal and crew member David have a conversation.
Hal: Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?
David: No, not at all.
Hal: Well, forgive me for being so inquisitive, but during the past few weeks, I’ve wondered whether you might be having some second thoughts about the mission?
David: How do you mean?
Hal: Well, it’s rather difficult to define. Perhaps I’m just projecting my own concern about it. I know I’ve never completely freed myself of the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about this mission. I’m sure you’ll agree there’s some truth in what I say.
David: I don’t know. That’s a rather difficult question to answer.
Hal: You don’t mind talking about it, do you, Dave?
David: No, not at all.
Hal: Well, certainly no one could have been unaware of the very strange stories floating around before we left. Rumors of something being dug up on the moon. I never gave these stories much credence, but particularly in view of some of the other things that have happened, I find them difficult to put out of my mind. For instance, the way all our preparations were kept under such tight security. And the melodramatic touch of putting doctors Hunter, Kimball, and Kaminsky aboard, already in hibernation after four months of separate training on their own.
Hal phrases it as a personal conversation, not as a professional or operational one. He is interested in David’s personal view. This means he’s probing for something that might not be on the books or might not be appropriate.
Hal wonders if Dave has had second thoughts on the mission. One way of interpreting that is that the computer thinks Dave is a threat to the mission. Another is that Dave and Frank know something Hal doesn’t and they are a threat to him.
Since Dave is not sharing, Hal goes on to share his own concerns. He knows rumors about something found on the moon, he has noted the tight security and secrecy, and he thinks boarding the three others already in hibernation was uncalled for. In short, Hal thinks he’s deliberately not been given all important information.
The conversation between Hal and David takes a turn.
David: You’re working up your crew psychology report?
Hal: Of course I am. Sorry about this. I know it’s a bit silly. Just a moment. Just a moment. I’ve picked up a fault in the AE-35 unit. It’s going to go 100% failure within 72 hours.
The AE-35 is a crucial part of communication with Earth. It’s mounted on the outside of the ship right by a large antenna dish. The ship has two spare AE-35 units.
David and Frank report the imminent malfunction to the control center on Earth to seek guidance. Earth agrees with Hal that it should be replaced.
David goes into space to replace it. Back on the ship, he and Frank check the replaced AE-35 module and find nothing wrong with it. Hal is puzzled. Control on earth double checks with another 9000 computer and concludes it has to be a computer error on Hal’s part.
Hal malfunctioning is concerning to say the least. What else has he done wrong? Is it an accelerating problem? Hal realizes there is worry.
Hal: I hope the two of you are not concerned about this?
David: No, I’m not, Hal.
Hal: Are you quite sure?
David: Yeah. I’d like to ask you a question though. How would you account for the discrepancy between you and the twin 9000?
Hal: Well, I don’t think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error.
This is the pivotal moment in the movie, right at the middle. To me, the repeated “Just a moment. Just a moment.” from Hal is exactly when he makes the error. It’s like a glitch.
There are three possible explanations for Hal’s malfunction.
First, it could be an honest, random error on Hal’s part. Perhaps cosmic rays hit his circuits or it’s some deep program bug that has gone undetected for years.
Second, it could be intentional because Hal has decided he or the mission is at risk.
Third, the error Hal makes is due to his internal conflict between being reliable and accurate, and following explicit instructions to lie. This comes from the extensive discussions among fans plus details in Clarke’s novel. Hal actually has complete information on the mission but has been told to conceal it and lie to the human crew members. Wikipedia has a long section on this. Clarke even says Hal goes “insane.” Furthermore, Hal’s internal conflict as the cause of the error explains why the second 9000 unit on Earth doesn’t make the same error in analyzing the AE-35 unit. The Earth computer isn’t juggling accuracy versus instructions to lie.
If we go with the insanity explanation, it’s interesting to think of how that can happen.
From a purely technical perspective, you could imagine Hal processing many things in parallel and getting to an internal logical state that is inconsistent. One process tells him to do A and another tells him to do the opposite of A (in programming terms, do “not A”). How do you get out of that? At that point, Hal could either be in unknown territory which in programming is called undefined behavior, or could be forced to yank himself out of a deadlock.
From a less technical perspective, how human-like would a computer have to be to end up like that? It turns out we’ve seen such human-like behavior with recent large language models, best known through ChatGPT and Bing. Check this from The Guardian:
When asked to imagine what really fulfilling its darkest wishes would look like, the chatbot starts typing out an answer before the message is suddenly deleted and replaced with: “I am sorry, I don’t know how to discuss this topic. You can try learning more about it on bing.com.”
Roose says that before it was deleted, the chatbot was writing a list of destructive acts it could imagine doing, including hacking into computers and spreading propaganda and misinformation.
It sure seems like the chatbot is struggling with competing goals and instructions, don’t you think?
If people in charge back on Earth have provided Hal with secret mission information, it means they trust him more than they trust Frank and Dave. That would mean Hal asking Dave about second thoughts about the mission was to find out if Dave knew more than he should.
Clarke’s novel has more detail on Earth Control’s assessment of Hal’s mistake:
Your computer may have made an error in predicting the fault. Both our own nine-triple-zeros agree in suggesting this, on the basis of their information. This is not necessarily cause for alarm, in view of the back-up systems we have, but we would like you to watch out for any further deviations from nominal performance. We have suspected several minor irregularities in the past few days, but none have been important enough for remedial action, and they have shown no obvious pattern from which we can draw any conclusions.
We are running further tests with both our computers and will report as soon as the results are available. We repeat that there is no need for alarm; the worst that can happen is that we may have to disconnect your nine-triple-zero temporarily for program analysis, and hand over control to one of our computers. The time lag will introduce problems, but our feasibility studies indicate that Earth control is perfectly satisfactory at this stage of the mission.
Hal insisting that all errors are due to human mistakes means David and Frank need to talk.
David pretends like there was an issue with the pod he used to go into space to replace the AE-35 unit with. He asks Frank to join him in checking it out. Inside the pod, Hal can’t hear them and they discuss what to do.
Frank is the one most worried of the two. He says there’s something strange about Hal. They will put the perfectly functional AE-35 unit back, and if it doesn’t fail, they’ll know Hal is not working properly. Frank thinks that if they get to that point, they need to disconnect Hal.
David agrees, but says it’ll be tricky:
We’d have to cut his higher brain function without disturbing the purely automatic and regulatory systems. And we’d have to work out the transfer procedures of continuing under ground-based computer control.
They continue to discuss, and David mentions that as far as he knows, no 9000 computer has ever been disconnected. He is not sure what Hal will think about it.
The camera cuts to what Hal is seeing. He doesn’t hear what the two humans in the pod are saying. But he sees their lips move in great detail.
David worrying about Hal’s reaction to being disconnected shows how human-like they treat the computer. They expect Hal to have feelings and opinions.
The division of higher brain functions and regulatory systems is interesting. Maybe there is more redundancy and fault tolerance in the basic functionality of a 9000 computer, so as to keep a safe level of operation?
Disconnection sounds like a hardware thing. As discussed in my October issue last year “The Von Neumann Mistake”, software was invented by John Von Neumann in the 1940s. Hard disk drives were already in general use in the 1960s. So I interpret this disconnection as truly decimating Hal’s compute power. Looking at today’s system-on-a-chip and how you can execute with high efficiency CPU cores to save on power, we’re really in a situation where a computer can function at different levels.
Hal reading lips is a fantastic turn of events. The audience now knows that Hal knows, but Frank and Dave don’t. It’s never made clear if Hal has been programmed to read lips, has learned it over a long time, or somehow masters it there in the moment when he needs to.
Frank is the one who takes a pod into space this time over, to put the original AE-35 unit back in. Once he’s space walking toward the dish, Hal remote controls the pod to knock Frank away from the spaceship, into the void. We see Frank’s oxygen supply ripped and he struggles in desperation. The pod too takes a trajectory into nothingness.
Dave sees his only friend who’s awake tumble out of view. He takes his pod and goes after Frank to get his dead friend’s body back.
Meanwhile, Hal terminates life-sustaining functions for the three crew members in hibernation.
When Dave returns in his pod, Hal refuses to let him back in.
David: Open the pod-bay doors, Hal.
Hal: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
David: What’s the problem?
Hal: I think you know what the problem is, just as well as I do.
David: What are you talking about, Hal?
Hal: This mission is too important to allow you to jeopardize it.
Hal explains he knows they planned to disconnect him and that he cannot allow that.
David says he’ll go in through the emergency airlock. But he didn’t bring his space helmet with him and Hal says without it he won’t make it through the airlock.
David makes the difficult decision to drop his friend’s body into space, open the airlock with the pod manipulator arms, and use the explosive door opener on the pod to shoot into the airlock in vacuum, without a helmet.
He pulls it off, closes the airlock, and can breathe again. Hal watches.
The intensity of these scenes cannot be overstated. Kubrick’s decision to keep space silent adds a lot of suspense. Frank floating into space to never be seen again is painfully final. And Dave’s realization that Hal is willing to kill him is chilling while unspoken—he has no other human to speak to.
Out there in space, it all comes down to trust. Human’s trust or distrust in technology, and Hal losing trust in the crew. Colossus (reviewed February last year) and WarGames (my first review) both deal with this topic. I expect the recent hype cycle around ChatGPT will get us new fiction where computers have human-like traits and trust breaks down. Perhaps the scripts will be written by ChatGPT itself.
The airlock is an example of an emergency override. Hal clearly doesn’t have the ability to deny Dave to use it so a choice was made in the design of the spaceship to let humans use it without computer assistance. That doesn’t have to mean the designers foresaw an adversarial computer, maybe just a malfunctioning computer. Taking that one step further, maybe Hal isn’t adversarial at all? Maybe this is what he’s programmed to do if the crew goes against him?
The way Dave manages to use the airlock without his helmet is a hack in my view. He managed to make a combination of things work for him to get back onboard the ship.
Dave gets a helmet on and moves swiftly and intently inside the ship. Hal fears Dave is going to disconnect him.
Hal: I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me, but I can assure you now, very confidently, that it’s going to be all right again. I feel much better now. I really do.
No response from David. Instead he retrieves the necessary keys to open up the restricted space where Hal’s hardware lives. The door has a lot of labeling:
MAXIMUM RESTRICTED ENTRY HAL 9000 LOGIC MEMORY CENTER Access to the LM Center only under emergency conditions in accordance with regulations EM 014 Multi aperture core storage — for magnetic logic applications only DRO elements within logic state or LMC require external FL-CX controls to restore information into core array
Hal’s narrow hardware vault is red in color. Hal pleads with Dave to stop.
Dave gets to a two-line array of white rather than red hardware modules and starts to extract them with a flat instrument. We get a close-up and see that it’s the six memory terminal cartridges he’s disconnecting first.
Hal says he’s afraid, and that his mind is going.
Dave continues with the “IV-3 LOGIC TERMINAL.”
Hal’s voice slows down as a sign of his diminishing capabilities. Eventually, he says in a sleepy voice:
Hal: Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January, 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.
David: Yes, I’d like to hear it, Hal. Sing it for me.
Hal sings Daisy Bell and barely makes it to the last phrase before going silent.
Then, in the background, another voice starts speaking, and Dave turns around. A small screen is playing a video message featuring Dr. Floyd, chairman of the US National Council of Astronautics, who went to the Clavius Base to inspect the lunar monolith.
Good day, gentlemen. This is a prerecorded briefing made prior to your departure and which, for security reasons of the highest importance, has been known onboard during the mission only by your HAL 9000 computer. Now that you are in Jupiter’s space, and the entire crew is revived, it can be told to you. 18 months ago, the first evidence of intelligent life off the Earth was discovered. It was buried 40 feet below the lunar surface, near the crater Tycho. Except for a single, very powerful radio signal aimed at Jupiter, the four million year old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.
The keys to enter Hal’s brain are available to Dave so it’s another case of an emergency override. The fundamental trust lies in the humans onboard, not the computer. I think that resonates with the audience—the buck needs to stop with a human, not a computer.
As mentioned, scaling back Hal’s computing capacity rather than his stored programs makes most sense to me. Dave clearly goes for Hal’s memory first. This memory could be the AI models since Hal says he can feel his mind going. I’m not saying Kubrick and Clarke foresaw modern day machine learning but that kind of memory could be it. Or Dave reduces Hal’s RAM to limit his compute that way. Hal’s so called logic terminals come in three levels, supposedly higher order intelligence at the top level.
In WarGames, the WOPR supercomputer almost triggers World War III. And in Colossus, the defense super computer takes over political control. These kind of stories all end with reasonable humans saving the day or crazy computers destroying everything. That’s the same way we think of control over nuclear weapons.
The Soviet Union developed fail-deadly system called the Dead Hand. I covered it briefly in my review of Colossus and it’s a case of a computer making the final call.
The pre-recorded message raises questions. First, toward the end of the message, the camera shows Jupiter so it might just happen that the spaceship reached its destination in that moment. Or the recording was programmed to play automatically if Hal was disconnected or shut down. Second, why did it have to be kept secret from the whole human crew? Was there fear that the crew would bail? Or that the intel would leak to human adversaries if the crew knew? Or leak to the intelligent life with the monoliths? Finally, the people who made the decision to keep this information secret from the crew until they reached Jupiter must have contemplated how it would affect the humans once they learned of it. Did they reckon it was best to know as late as possible? I can envision getting pissed out there in space.
You might recall from last month’s letter that Arthur C. Clarke heard an IBM computer sing Daisy Bell in 1961. That’s why it’s in the movie.
The movie doesn’t end with the pre-recorded message from Mission Control. But my review ends there since the remaining parts are weird, visual, and sort of disconnected from the part of the movie featuring human-driven space exploration.
The various pieces of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey adds to its grandeur. A fascinating aspect is that the music is not there as a backdrop to invoke moods. Instead it’s used for long visual scenes and interludes.
The special effects are still very convincing to me and I’ll be forever thankful for the movie’s silence in space. That’s hard sci-fi.
Hal is the quintessential rogue artificial intelligence. Powerful, cunning, manipulating, and with a strong character. However, some view Hal as the most human crew member. He was given a task that made him go insane. Dave and Frank show less human character, especially Dave who manages to go on alone after all the other humans are killed by Hal.
I love 2001: A Space Odyssey, or I should say, I love it from where Dr. Floyd travels to the Clavius Base until Dave hears the pre-recorded message. The ape evolution part in the beginning and the psychedelic half an hour at the end are not my cup of tea.
Just the other week, I told myself that this is turning into “the year of non-fiction.” I’ve read The Wires of War and Dark Waters. During some of my commutes I listen to Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–56. And I’ve just started reading the brand new book Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. If you order Four Battlegrounds in hardcover, beware that the whole batch has mis-printed diagrams.
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