Who Invented the Computer? Kubrick, Clarke, and HAL 9000
Who Invented the Computer? This is the twenty-seventh installment in our ongoing series.
Computers have been appearing on the silver screen for almost a century. Beginning in the 1930s and throughout the 40s, Paramount Studios played newsreels from Popular Science magazine before their feature films. These five-minute shorts contained reports of scientific advances including atomic power, radar, and computers.
The first movie to actually feature a computer in a major role was Desk Set in 1957. This romcom starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as co-workers who eventually realize their love for each other despite of Tracy's infatuation with his latest (and greatest) invention, the EMERAC computer.
As the idea of powerful electronic brains spread throughout the world, computers soon played essential roles in numerous Hollywood plots. The more memorable of these films include 1961's The Honeymoon Machine, in which Steve McQueen and fellow shipmates secretly employ a powerful naval computer to win big bucks at roulette. There was also the French new wave science fiction neo-noir film, Alphaville (1965), and the 1967 espionage thriller Billion Dollar Brain starring Michael Caine.
Computers would continue appearing in films and television shows, but it wasn't until 1968 that a computer was given a starring role. In filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey — developed simultaneously as a screenplay and a novel by Kubrick and British author Arthur C. Clarke — the computer HAL 9000 is a principal protagonist. To this day, HAL remains the most famous computer in cinematic history.
A Star Is Born
2001 has grown to be a fan favorite of almost everyone who is interested in science fiction or computers, with most having watched it multiple times. In creating his masterpiece, Kubrick spared no expense, employing his innovative style of cinematography along with extensively intricate models of various spacecraft and locations along with cutting-edge special effects of astronauts floating weightless in space and inside the ship.
He even had a 27-ton ferris wheel built for shots of the crew exercising inside of the ship. To create the illusion of running on a rotating ship, Kubrick secured pieces of equipment inside the wheel and had the actors jog in place as the wheel rotated beneath them.
A hallmark of Kubrick films was presenting characters and circumstances in a manner that caused audiences to ponder existential questions of morality, technology, and of course, the future of the human race. In 2001, he brought all three questions to the forefront by highlighting the concept of artificial intelligence ("AI") that eventually learns more than the humans who created it.
HAL is the sentient onboard computer for Discovery One, a spaceship travelling on a classified mission to Jupiter. HAL controls the ship and is responsible for detecting potential equipment malfunctions before they happen and alerting the crew to needed repairs. At one point in the journey, HAL begins acting in a manner that causes the two-man crew to suspect something is wrong with its (his?) programming.
Growing increasingly concerned over HAL's decision making, the two astronauts climb into one of the ship's transportation modules to prevent HAL from overhearing their discussion. In one of the film's most chilling scenes, the crew decide that HAL must be turned off by disconnecting it from the ship's power source.
While HAL can't overhear the discussion, however, one of his cameras is able to view the men's faces. And unbeknownst to the humans, HAL has developed the ability to read lips — and begins planning to protect itself and the mission by killing the crew.
Although 2001 eventually became famous, its original reviews were wildly mixed ranging from Hollywood heavyweight Rock Hudson who walked out early saying, "What is this bulls--t?" to "It succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale" from film critic Robert Ebert.
What Did We Learn?
While the final scene of the movie has caused many a debate the film's exact meaning, Kubrick was satisfied that he achieved his main goal of introducing the concept of artificial intelligence to the public. Fascinated at the increased usage and advancements of computers in our modern world, Kubrick wanted audiences who saw 2001 to ponder what life would be like living with computers that had become self-aware, a reality he saw as inevitable.
As he explained in an interview given upon the film's release, "We were trying to convey ... the reality of a world populated — as ours soon will be — by machine entities who have as much, or more intelligence as human beings, and who have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings."
Whether they intended to or not, Kubrick and Clarke opened the door to the trope of sentient computers attempting to destroy mankind, a disturbing possibility that has inarguably, if largely subconsciously, informed the broadly adversarial view that many people have of computer technology in general. Artificial intelligence is still in its infancy and thus far the rampages of malicious computer programs have been wholly confined to the realm of science fiction and comic books.
There is, however, increasing concern from prominent individuals like Elon Musk and Bill Gates about the possibility of a computer program going full Skynet. (That is to say, precipitating a nuclear holocaust as the opening salvo in a war to eliminate humankind. The reference is the James Cameron's 1984 film The Terminator.) This may be a timely concern, as worldwide spending on AI research and development projects exceeded $20 billion in 2021 and is expected to continue increasing for the foreseeable future.
HAL may have been a fictional computer, but it occupies a central position in the recollection of movie goers. So much so that, whenever the movie is brought up in discussion, HAL is almost always the first aspect of the film that comes to mind. Few even remember the names of the astronauts — and if they do recollect that one of them was named Dave, then it's only because of HAL saying, "Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye." (HAL's preternaturally calm, mellifluous voice was supplied by Canadian stage actor Douglas Rain, who later narrated the documentary film The Man Who Skied Down Everest.)
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke may not have invented a real computer. But they certainly did invent a memorable one.
What's In a Name?
An interesting postscript to the story of HAL 9000 concerns the thinking computer's benign-sounding (at least initially) nickname. Clarke explained that the name is a loosely formulated acronym derived from the the descriptive phrase "heuristically programmed algorithmic computer" by taking the leading H and the AL from "algorithmic."
Following the film's release, fans took note that the letters in HAL are, alphabetically, one letter removed from those in IBM, which consulted on the film. An intentional insult? Not so, according to Clarke, who later apologized for the perception that he and Kubrick had made the name of their computer a satiric dig at the "estimable institution" that had partnered in their creative venture.
In the nonfiction companion book The Lost Worlds of 2001, Clarke wrote: "As it happened, IBM had given us a good deal of help, so we were quite embarrassed by this, and would have changed the name had we spotted the coincidence." (IBM corporate logos appear in various spots in the film, and the company ultimately did not object to being closely associated with a cinematic story featuring a murderous computer.)