Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1859:

John H. Lienhard presents guest Andrew Boyd

Today, our guest, scientist Andrew Boyd discusses a legendary movie figure. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In the 1968 film 2001, director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke introduce us to the most infamous engineering icon in cinematic history: HAL, the computer onboard the Jupiter space mission.

{The voice of Hal says, "Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer."   }
HAL 9000

Undoubtedly the most complex character in the film, HAL interacted much like a human — even to the point of letting inner conflicts drive him to murder. While artificial intelligence has long been captivating material for computer scientists, philosophers, science fiction writers, and movie directors alike, HAL stands out as both a fascinating film character and a carefully thought out vision of where artificial intelligence might've been at the dawn of the new millennium.

In the book Hal's Legacy, editor David Stork compiles a collection of essays by some of the leading minds in the field of artificial intelligence. The picture that emerges is how overly optimistic early prognostications were from the artificial intelligence community. Clearly, nothing remotely resembling HAL can be found today. But even some of HAL's most basic capabilities remain tremendous engineering puzzles.

Take, for example, speech recognition. The sound waves produced by different people pronouncing the word "table" are strikingly varied. You and I have little difficulty sorting through the many pronunciations to arrive at the proper word, yet the task remains quite problematical for computers.

Establishing the meaning of words is vastly more complicated. Take the sentence "Time flies like an arrow." You and I recognize this as a statement about the speed with which time seems to pass: "time flies," and it does so "like an arrow." Computers have been known to wonder if it is a request to use a stop watch to measure the speed of flies, and to take the measurement in the same way that an arrow would: "time flies" and do so "like an arrow."

{The voice of Hal says, "I'm sorry, Dave; I'm afraid I can't do that."   }

The lack of commercial speech recognition applications and the continued proliferation of keyboards are a testament to just how hard speech recognition remains.

While artificial intelligence has made some progress, the speed has been disappointing at best. David Kuck, former director of the Center for Supercomputing Research and Development at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (HAL's fictional birthplace) admits that "under any general definition ... artificial intelligence has so far been a failure."

{The voice of Hal says, "This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error"   }
Researchers remain convinced that much of human intelligence can be replicated, though wild-eyed optimism has been replaced by realism. John McCarthy, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, has commented that if we work really hard, we'll have an intelligent system in somewhere from four to four hundred years.

So we may have to wait a long time before we meet HAL. For all our engineering prowess, we have yet to unlock the mystery of human intelligence. Will we ever? Only time will tell.

{The voice of Hal says, This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.   }

I'm Andy Boyd, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

D. Stork, Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997.

Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President at PROS, a provider of pricing and revenue optimization solutions. Dr. Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at Oberlin College with majors in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Operations Research from MIT in 1987. Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten-year career as a university professor.

HAL reading his crew's lips
HAL's view of Frank and Dave as he -- it -- reads their lips

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.