The Legacy of Hal 9000: How Science Fiction Depictions of AI Have Changed Over Time | History Hit

The Legacy of Hal 9000: How Science Fiction Depictions of AI Have Changed Over Time

Celeste Neill

13 Mar 2023
Still from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film '2001: A Space Odyssey' (©Warner Bros) featuring the computer called Hal 9000.
Image Credit: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

Science fiction films and books have always been fascinated with the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) and its implications for humanity. From the early days of science fiction literature to the latest blockbuster movies, AI has been a central theme that has captured the imagination of audiences worldwide.

One of the most iconic representations of AI in science fiction is Hal 9000, the sentient computer from the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sentient computer’s initial cold, logical demeanor which rapidly descends into murderous behaviour has played a pivotal role in how AI has been perceived by the public in the last half-century of popular culture.

However, the idea of artificial intelligence was not born in the modern era. Long before the age of science fiction films and books, humans have been fascinated by the theme of artificial creations that can come to life. 

Its origins can be traced back to Greek mythology

The ancient Greeks had myths about robots, with the earliest concepts of artificial intelligence appearing in Western literature some 3,000 years ago. Some of the first themes of intelligent humanoids and self-moving objects appear in the work of Greek poets Hesiod and Homer, who were alive sometime between 750 and 650 BC.

Talos, first mentioned around 700 B.C. in writings by Hesiod, is one of the earliest depictions of a robot, described as a giant bronze ‘living statue’, built by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. He was ordered to guard the island of Crete and would turn into red-hot fire if a stranger approached the island, whilst Homer’s Odyssey includes a pair of robotic silver and gold watchdogs who guard over the palace of Alcinoos and are described as possessing ‘intelligent minds’.

However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the idea of artificial intelligence as we understand it today began to take a more familiar shape. In 1872 English writer Samuel Butler published a book called Erewhon which explored ideas of artificial intelligence, influenced by Darwin’s recently published On the Origin of Species, and the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. Then in 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein introduced the world to the concept of a sentient being created through science, which would become a cornerstone of science fiction literature. 

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From Science Fiction to reality

As technology advanced throughout the 20th century, science fiction writers began to explore the darker implications of creating artificial intelligence. One of the earliest examples is Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series of short stories, which introduced the concept of the Three Laws of Robotics. The stories explored the potential dangers of AI and emphasised the need for ethical guidelines to prevent harm to humans. Whilst Czech playwright Karel Čapek wrote about a factory that manufactured artificial workers in R.U.R., which popularised the word ‘robot’ after his play was staged in America in 1922.

However just after World War Two AI went from fiction to reality thanks to Alan Turing, the British mathematician and code-breaker. In 1948 he mapped out the central concept of AI in a report entitled Intelligent Machinery. He went to to create the Turing test, which is still used today in measuring a machine’s ability to ‘think’ like a human. His work was the biggest influence in developing public awareness of the term ‘artificial intelligence’, which first became popular in the mid-1950s, after Turing died.

A killer supercomputer becomes a film star

It wasn’t until the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, that AI truly entered the public consciousness. It featured Hal 9000, which stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, a sentient system that controlled the operations of a spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter. It went on to become one of the most iconic representations of AI in science fiction, depicted as a sentient being capable of speech, emotion and logical decision-making, with a soothing but somewhat unsettling voice.

As HAL becomes more self-aware it begins to exhibit negative human-like traits, such as jealousy and anger, and its ensuing conflict with the crew and descent into madness points to the dangers of relying too heavily on advanced computer systems. 

Hal 9000 was created in a joint screenplay written between English writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick, whilst his design and behaviour were credited to computer scientist Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of AI research. One of the first electronic learning machines was built by Minsky who worked with Kubrik to define what HAL would look like. Another adviser on the film was Irving John Good, a computer pioneer who had worked alongside Alan Turing at the secretive Bletchley Park in England, where they decrypted intercepted German radio transmissions.

Left: 2D depiction of the interface prop used by Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” to represent AI named Hal. Right: Still from The 1968 Stanley Kubrick film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (©Warner Bros).

Image Credit: Left: Wikimedia Commons / Tom Cowap / CC BY-SA 4.0. Right: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

HAL’s Legacy

The legacy of Hal 9000 extends far beyond 2001: A Space Odyssey. The character has become a cultural touchstone, inspiring countless references and parodies in popular media. Hal’s distinctive red eye and monotone voice have become shorthand for malevolent AI in movies, television shows, and video games. The film captures the AI anxiety of the 1960s, when the the world started to become aware that computers would inevitably develop the ability to think and act for themselves.

HAL laid out the blueprint for AI, and the impact of dangerous technology on humanity, in cinema and television. A legacy still seen on screen through films and shows such as Westworld, The Terminator, Blade Runner and Alien.

Celeste Neill