He invented “2001: A Space Odyssey” but was afraid of meeting real aliens

Arthur Charles Clarke (Photo: Wikipedia)
Arthur Charles Clarke (Photo: Wikipedia)

These days it is remembered, and there will even be those who celebrate, a fictitious birthday. It is about the intelligent computer of the film 2001: A Space Odysseydirected by stanley kubrick. “I’m a computer HAL 9000 -says the same machine in its monotone voice- I began to work in the HAL laboratories on January 12, 1992″.

In that film, HAL is responsible for guiding the spacecraft Discovery into orbit of Jupiter to investigate an “anomaly”: a monolith of mysterious origin. This is how the great science fiction writer imagined the future Arthur C Clarkein whose stories -among them the sentinelabout an ancient artifact placed in ancient times on our moon by an extraterrestrial civilization – the film’s script is based on.

Yes ok 2001: A Space Odyssey Released more than half a century ago, Clarke’s genius ideas so accurately anticipated our time that many scenes could have been filmed yesterday. An example of this is lunar landscapes. The film was released in April 1968, that is, more than a year before humanity’s arrival on the Moon, which only took place in July 1969. And although it is true that several lunar probes had already taken black and white photos of our satellite, lThe accuracy with which Clarke envisioned the landscapes for moonwalks is truly astounding.. The same is true for orbiting images of Jupiter.

Clarke’s greatest success lies, however, in having imagined more than half a century ago the advancement of artificial intelligence. In several ways, Clarke’s imagination went even further than the best programs available today. Although we have a system like Siri or Alexa, capable of interpreting verbal commands and responding to them, we still do not have any design capable of maintaining more sophisticated or deep dialogues. HAL 9000, the intelligent computer that Clarke envisioned and whose anniversary inspires this note, solved commands far superior to any intelligent computer today.

a frame of "2001: A Space Odyssey", directed by Kubrick.  (Moviestore/Shutterstock)
A still from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” directed by Kubrick. (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

This is partly due to the optimism that reigned at the time about the possibility of creating a computer whose intelligence would match or even exceed that of humans. Systems such as ELIZA, created in the years prior to the release of 2001: A Space OdysseyThey fostered that illusion. ELIZA seemed capable of holding conversations with humans. But in reality, it was nothing more than a clumsy simulation that limited itself to recognizing key words and answering vague questions.

Today, artificial intelligence has significantly moderated your expectations. For better or for worse, advances in this discipline are aimed at achieving concrete results and supplementing human intelligence in specific areas, not imitating or surpassing it. An example is the ChatGPT system, recently introduced by OpenAI: while it is capable of generating remarkable texts, it is remarkably incapable of thinking or interpreting the texts it generates.

Its operation is based on the statistical processing of vast data repositories. This is a common pattern in modern AI: what is not understood is simulated based on statistics. In other words: ChatGPT understands absolutely nothing of what you type. Or rather, ChatGPT is not an entity like a person is, not even a squirrel. It is a vast network of statistical parameters. In this sense, ChatGPT is a much more powerful and useful simulation than ELIZA, but a simulation nonetheless. There is “nobody” behind the texts it generates. Nor has any understanding of reality.

Research continues, and one day we may be able to create an artificial mind whose complexity and capacity approaches the human brain (or HAL 9000). But that may take centuries, or perhaps millennia. Many researchers believe that we will eventually create computers as capable or more capable than humans, but that these they will never be able to think or feel like us. This, however, does not have to prevent further progress.

As the Dutch mathematician and algorithm expert EW Dijkstra put it: Asking whether computers can think is tantamount to asking whether submarines can swim. They certainly manage to move through the water, but not in the way that we would. In the same way, our computers manage to obtain solutions that we would have a hard time reaching, and at speeds that completely exceed us. But, according to Dijkstra, we should avoid metaphors based on human abilities or behaviors to describe the operation of computer systems. It is possible that these will catch up with us and surpass us, but following very different paths.

The directors had to face challenges of equal depth towards the end of the film. The script established that there should be an encounter with the extraterrestrial civilization. But Clarke Y kubrick not only did they not find the right way to do it, but also they were seriously concerned about an encounter with real aliens and that these did not coincide with what they had imagined.

Stanley Kubrick adapted Clarke's work for film.
Stanley Kubrick adapted Clarke’s work for film.

As Clarke recalled, Stanley Kubrick tried to take out an insurance policy through Lloyds to protect himself from the possible losses that would cause the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence before the premiere of the movie. But Lloyds refused. They then decided to consult an expert and turned to another great figure of the 20th century: the astronomer Carl Sagan. He advised them that instead of portraying the aliens in the film accurately, they should do so abstractly. Clarke and Kubrick listened to him and instead of imagining the physiognomy of specific beings they used shapes and colors to suggest their presence.

2001: A Space Odyssey It had several sequels in different formats. The most noteworthy is the movie 2010: Odyssey Two, that deciphers many of the enigmas that had remained pending. Released in 1984, this sequel is also crossed by the geopolitical context of the Cold War. Still on that axis, far from his scientific-technological focus, Clarke managed to hit the future once again: imagined that in that year, 2010, an African-American president would rule the United States. This was, in fact, exactly what happened, since in 2010 the North American president was Barack Obamawho ruled that nation between 2009 and 2017.

Less surprising, since both films were conceived in full Cold War, is that Clarke has also anticipated warlike tensions between the United States and Russia. In a very brief shot of odyssey two the camera shows a fictitious edition of Time magazine that wonders (as many analysts do today because of the confrontation in Ukraine) if there will be war between Russia and the United States. An imaginary African-American President Milson then delivers the following speech to the American astronauts:

“I have a very difficult announcement to make. As you know, things here on Earth have not been going well. In fact, they have gotten worse. They are worse, much worse. The United States has severed diplomatic relations with Russia. All of our ambassadors have been retired. All Russian diplomats have been expelled from the United States. All our forces are on high alert. Russian Prime Minister Ulanov has said that ‘technically’ our countries are at war”.

In the film, these tensions force the Russians and the Americans to separate into separate spaceships orbiting Jupiter.


Clarke’s technological prophecies are astonishing today for how accurate they are.. But of even greater importance are the ethical dilemmas that he left posed. In 2001: a space odyssey, the HAL 9000 computer is capable of prodigies, but also of homicidal outbursts. A series of contradictions in the data he has received leads HAL to assassinate the crew of his ship.

In a famous scene, astronaut Dave Bowman manages to elude their traps and re-enter the ship. He then gains access to the interior of HAL 9000 and proceeds to disconnect its memory modules, one by one, until it stops working. Today you can’t expect a computer to go to such extremes, but the questions Clarke raised in 2001 still valid: what really is intelligence? To what extent is it convenient for us that our computer systems imitate our human way of reasoning? And finally:How much power are we willing to cede to those systems?s, as we must entrust them with more and more essential tasks for the functioning of our civilization? All of these questions will become more and more relevant as HAL 9000 – and its real life counterparts – continue to grow older and older: we’re already hurtling into the future.

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He invented “2001: A Space Odyssey” but was afraid of meeting real aliens