Stanford News

1/14/97

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The legacy of the computer HAL in 2001

Fans of the movie 2001: David Stork has a book for you.

While earlier books have described how science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and moviemaker Stanley Kubrick collaborated on the famous science fiction film, Stork has taken a different tack. In Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality (MIT Press), the consulting professor in electrical engineering, visiting scholar in psychology and chief scientist at the Ricoh California Research Center features a number of top researchers discussing how the world's best-known fictional computer stacks up against the current state of the art.

"I first saw 2001 when I was 13 or 14 years old. I didn't understand it at all. Since then I've seen it more than a dozen times, and it has influenced my career," said Stork, whose specialty is teaching computers how to read lips.

Stork wrote the book to encourage moviemakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to pay more attention to the scientific underpinnings of their space operas. He maintains that 2001 is without peer in its attention to scientific detail. "Compared to it, movies like Star Trek and Star Wars seem stupid," he said.

As Stork writes in the preface, "It is a testament to Clarke and Kubrick's achievement that 2001 still holds up to close scrutiny in the late 1990s. Under the expert eyes of the contributors, the most innocuous aspects of scenes ­ a line of computer code on a screen, a chess move, the use of a word, the form of a button ­ reveal a great deal."

When Stork began approaching top scientists and technologists to write chapters for his book, he found that a number of them also had been deeply touched by the movie. In his preface, Clarke wrote that he was "especially happy to know how [the book's] contributors were affected."

Hal's Legacy includes an extended interview with MIT's Marvin Minsky, who ­ along with Stanford's John McCarthy ­ is considered a father of artificial intelligence. Minsky was a scientific adviser on the film and describes the kind of discussions he had with Clarke and Kubrick. Despite his involvement, he didn't have a detailed idea of what the film was about until he saw it on its opening night. "I remember sitting with Carl Sagan at the Boston opening of 2001 and thinking it was the most awesome film I'd ever seen," he said.

Raymond Kurzweil, who has pioneered the technology of speech recognition, is another contributor who is well known. He discusses the question of whether computers will ever be able to understand what people say. "HAL understands human spoken language about as well as a person; at least that's the impression we get from the movie. Achieving this level of machine proficiency is not the threshold we stand on today. Still, machines are quickly gaining the ability to understand what we say, as long as we stay within certain limited but useful domains. Until HAL comes along, we will be talking to our computers to dictate written documents, obtain information from data bases, command a diverse array of tasks, and interact with an environment that increasingly intertwines human and machine intelligence," he concludes.

Among the contributors with Stanford connections: Ravishankar Iyer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who previously held a position on the Stanford faculty, summarizes the state of computer reliability; Douglas B. Lenat, founder of Cycorp, who received his doctorate from Stanford, previously held a faculty position and remains a consulting professor, discusses robots' need for common sense; and David E. Wilkins, a Stanford graduate who works at the SRI International AI Center, covers the subject of computers' planning ability.

The one person who did not respond to Stork's invitation to contribute is the man to whom the book is dedicated, Stanley Kubrick, who has become something of a recluse in recent years.

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By David F. Salisbury