2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a landmark in the representation of artificial intelligence in visual culture. From the earliest moments of the film, we are cast about in space and time in ways that distort and upend our perceptions of reality. At the centre of the film is the HAL 9000 computer. HAL is the acronym for a Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer—which is to say, a computer optimized for problem solving, self-discovery and decision-making, though inherently vulnerable to error. It is adept at independently controlling complex machines, interacting with humans in ways that would certainly pass the Turing Test, and using computer vision to track a wide range of activities, including the reading of lips.

Left to its own devices, HAL suspects that the humans are sabotaging the planned mission to Jupiter, and it begins to restrict their control, finally deciding to kill them in order to save the mission. But Bowman narrowly escapes, and makes his way to HAL’s computer processing core where he methodically disconnects the various circuits that produce HAL’s consciousness. HAL maintains a calm and controlled voice trying to assure Bowman that it can change its plan. But as Bowman slowly deactivates HAL’s memory, it begs Bowman to stop, expressing its fear, its feeling of loss—then finally devolving to its earliest operational state.

At this point in the film, viewers are invited to consider our limited assumptions about the nature of sentience, and, specifically, its formation in machines.

The film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, and his co-writer for the screenplay, Arthur C. Clarke, conceived of an artificial intelligence that had achieved a consciousness that closely resembled that of humans—recognizing within this a very real likelihood of fallibility.

The question of fallibility and error(s) in judgement produced by the actions of an artificial intelligence is a persistent theme, from the 1950s onward, in literature, art and, most notably, film.

Text To Speech

Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (excerpts), 1968, film transferred to digital video, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer