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Dave, Stop, I'm Afraid

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Window on the Future: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's famous "2001" is the inspiration for the new collection of essays about advances in artificial intelligence, "Hal's Legacy."

Tech types and academics ponder the possible reality of bringing Kubrick and Clarke's famous HAL to life

By Andrew X. Pham

IN 1968, WHEN the first node of the Internet was only an inspiration on a piece of paper and a computer with the power of today's low-end personal digital assistants took up a medium-sized warehouse, HAL was the holy grail of the computer world.

The creators of 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick and screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, predicted that HAL (derived from Heuristic Algorithmic), the fully intelligent and (too) emotion-capable supercomputer that made Keir Dullea's life miserable and sang itself to sleep with "Daisy," would become operational on Jan. 17, 1997.

And for three decades, their vision has inspired a generation of scientists.

How close are we now to the HAL that seemed so real in the movie? Although HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality boasts all the markings of a coffee-table book--dubious title, irregular shape and plenty of color pictures--it contains erudite and insightful discussions about current computer technologies and their directions.

Editor and contributing author David G. Stork has organized the book as a tribute to the movie--and to Kubrick and Clarke. Sixteen chapters from 14 collaborating scientists and researchers address the question of a HAL-caliber computer's feasibility. The issues run the gamut from chess-playing computers and text-to-speech synthesis to supercomputer design and computer ethics.

"[A]re people ready for affective computers?" asks Rosalind Picard in her well-written and entertaining chapter, "Does HAL Cry Digital Tears? Emotions and Computers." Picard eloquently explains the technical definitions of emotions and their role in affective computing.

In this new field, computers are designed to interpret a human user's emotion, using voice analysis and physical signs. Picard postulates that "lack of emotions may be a key reason why artificial intelligence has failed" at building "an intelligent, friendly, flexible machine like HAL."

"Computers, Science, and Extraterrestrials," editor Stork's interview with Stephen Wolfram, stands out as the liveliest chapter. Wolfram, founder and president of Wolfram Research Inc. and principal engineer of the popular Mathematica computer system, offers some refreshing and strong opinions.

Regarding the future of computers, he says, "If one looks at the history of computing, there's an extremely clear trend: special-purpose hardware gets replaced by software running on general-purpose machines."

So someday expect to carry a computer the size of a pocket calculator that will monitor your vital signs (for health records), serve as your personal computer (for home and office) and generally become your cellular phone, pager, alarm clock, G.P.S. and personal entertainment center.

"For information to become knowledge, it must incorporate the relationships between ideas," writes Raymond Kurzweil in "When Will HAL Understand What We Are Saying? Computer Speech Recognition and Understanding," a look at the details and dynamics of speech as discrete units of sound and the history of automatic speech-recognition systems.

Kurzweil's prediction of the time required for developing the requisite technologies to build a HAL computer agrees with other authors in the book.

Relying on Moore's law, which states that computing speeds and densities double every 18 months, Kurzweil estimates that in about two decades, computing capability will leap by a factor of 10 million, the magnitude necessary to match the massive parallel processing capability of the human brain. So, HAL remains a holy grail for the foreseeable future.

THE BALANCE of the book offers some diverting summaries on the appropriate technologies if a HAL computer were to be built. While the content is supposedly geared for nonscientists and computer enthusiasts alike, a good chunk of Hal's Legacy drones on like a text for a freshman Computer Tech 101 class.

Although HAL and 2001 provide a useful point of reference for various digressions into technology, as central ideas for the book they hamper the issues.

In some chapters, it seems embarrassingly evident that the authors have little to say about the bearing of their work on the movie and vice versa. Then there is the intrinsic tendency of academics to reiterate the premise--over and over. Stork needed to do some judicious editing.

HAL's Legacy is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing. Depending on the unsuspecting reader's perspective, the book either exquisitely brims or painstakingly staggers with details. Perhaps HAL's last words might be appropriate for David Stork, the book's chief architect: "Dave, stop. Stop, will you? I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going."


HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality, edited by David G. Stork; MIT Press; 384 pages; $22.50 cloth.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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