Happy 25th birthday, HAL!

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 12th, 2017.

Rambus Fellow Dr. David G. Stork recently penned an article for Semiconductor Engineering to mark the 25th birthday of HAL 9000, a (fictional) sentient computer which became operational on January 12, 1992 at the HAL Laboratories in Urbana, Illinois.

“Nearly a half-century ago [in 2001: A Space Odyssey], Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick introduced us to cinema’s most compelling example of artificial intelligence: the HAL 9000, a heuristically programmed algorithmic computer,” writes Stork. “The sentient HAL was not only capable of understanding his human colleagues – he could also speak, see, plan, understand emotion and play chess.”

Despite numerous attempts by other science fiction filmmakers, says Stork, HAL remains the most compelling portrayal of machine intelligence in cinema.

“When as a young boy I first saw 2001 (in large-screen Cinerama), I was entranced. That experience, and my many dozens of subsequent viewings, helped lead me to a career in pattern recognition, machine learning, smart sensing, and other technologies that would make a real HAL,” he explains. “I even published a book, HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality (MIT Press), and co-created and hosted a PBS documentary on HAL, 2001: HAL’s Legacy, to share my enthusiasm for the masterpiece film and its leading character.”

As Stork notes, since the film’s 1968 debut, humankind has landed on the moon, explored Mars with rovers and even sent robotic probes to study the outer solar systems.

“[However], in contrast to space travel, the development of artificial intelligence (AI) has progressed at a somewhat slower pace,” he continues. “To be sure, the creation of artificial systems that can see, speak, understand language, lip-read, appreciate art, understand emotions and plan is currently one of the greatest challenges facing scientists. We humans are so adept at these tasks we take our expertise for granted; it is when we try to build systems to perform these tasks do we fully appreciate the magnitude of the challenges.”

Nevertheless, says Stork, AI scientists working in pattern and speech recognition, computer vision and machine learning have made significant progress in recent years. This includes deep learning, in which large ‘brain-like’ networks programmed with hundreds of millions of examples are trained to recognize objects, actions and simple descriptions of scenes. In some applications, such networks even outperform human experts.

“One recent example of deep learning is AlphaGo, a computer program developed to play Go, an abstract strategy board game invented in China more than 2,500 years ago,” states Stork. “The advent of AlphaGo, which successfully defeated a professional Go player, illustrates the steady evolution of artificial intelligence.”

Indeed, during the early years of AI, the ultimate benchmark of an advanced computer program was its ability to beat a human opponent at the game of chess by analyzing potential player moves with massive search capabilities. However, this technique is insufficient for Go, which Google defines as a game of “profound complexity,” as there are more possible positions on the Go board than there are atoms in the universe.

“Consequently, AlphaGo is based on AI methods and pattern recognition, using deep neural networks to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the board position and mimic expert players and further improve the program by learning from games played against itself,” Stork explains. “Put simply, DeepMind focuses on patterns and structure, which, unlike massive search algorithms, seems to be the true foundation of much of human intelligence and advanced artificial intelligence.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, says Stork, artificial intelligence researchers have always found themselves challenged by a perpetually receding goalpost.

“Every time an advance has been made (in speech recognition, planning, image understanding, and so forth) scholars and the public alike say, ‘Oh that’s not true AI… We’ll have AI when…’ Nonetheless, AI researchers have made real progress in recent decades. And now, on HAL’s birthday, we can confidently look back and say HAL has matured considerably since the 1968 debut of 2001: A Space Odyssey,” he concludes.