Did HAL "err" on purpose?

[This issue was explored thoroughly on USENET.]

          *          *          *          *          * 

HAL turns from being a servant of the astronauts to an adversary. Why?

Are his actions, murdering Poole, the frozen scientists and the 
attempted murder of Bowman merely hubris, because he doesn't want to 
admit an error? This is the perhaps the most common interpretation of 
HAL's murderous tendencies, but it is problematic.

For reasons that will become apparent, I quote at length the 
conversation between Bowman and HAL prior to his homicidal 

          *          *          *          *          * 

HAL: By the way, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?

BOWMAN:  No, not at all.

HAL: Well, forgive me for being so inquisitive, but during the past few 
weeks I've wondered whether you've been having some second thoughts 
about the mission.

BOWMAN:  How do you mean?

HAL: Well, it's rather difficult to define. Perhaps I'm just projecting 
my own concern about it. I know I've never completely freed myself of 
the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about this 
mission. I'm sure you will agree that there's some truth in what I say?

BOWMAN:  Well, I don't know -- that's a rather difficult question to 

HAL: You don't mind talking about it, do you Dave?

BOWMAN:  No, not at all.

HAL: Well, certainly, no one could have been unaware of the very strange 
stories floating around before we left: rumors about something being dug 
up on the Moon. I never gave these stories much credence, but 
particularly in view of some of the other things that have happened I 
find them difficult to put out of my mind. For instance, the way all of 
our preparations were kept under such tight security. And the 
melodramatic touch of putting Doctors Hunter, Kimble and Kominsky 
aboard, already in hibernation, after four months of separate training 
on their own.

BOWMAN:  You're working on your crew psychology report.

HAL: Of course I am! Sorry about this, I know it's a bit silly. Just a 
minute . . . just a minute . . . I'm picking up a fault in the AE-35 
unit . . .

          *          *          *          *          * 

HAL's anxiety is prevalent throughout this scene and he adopts the very 
human technique of projecting his own concerns outwards, to the extent 
of using Dave as a sounding board for them. But if this evidence of a 
growing paranoia, how can it be substantiated in the light of Heywood 
Floyd's taped message at the end of the Discovery section?

     Good day, Gentlemen, this is a pre-recorded briefing, made 
     prior to your departure, and which for security reasons of 
     the highest importance has been known only by your HAL 9000 
     computer . . .

So is HAL's anxiety merely a posture, an attempt to gain Bowman's 
confidence perhaps to elicit some of the doubts HAL was interested in 
hearing about?

The implication is that HAL knows there is no fault in the AE-35 unit 
and that it is a premeditated ploy on his part to provoke Bowman, Floyd 
and most importantly Mission Control, into thinking that he is 
malfunctioning, thereby achieving two things: firstly, he creates an 
opportunity to getting Bowman and Poole off the ship where they are most 
vulnerable to attack (if he starves the ship of oxygen for instance, 
they could easily don space suits and shut him down), and secondly, he 
sows the seeds of his malfunction so that he can always plead diminished 
responsibility if Mission Control ever sends a vessel to investigate to 
disappearance of the crew.

There is no evidence that HAL is meant to be mad, he displays a 
calculating logic throughout -- always six moves ahead of the 
competition. He does nothing to endanger himself; in fact, he becomes 
increasingly hostile when his own existence is threatened, and his 
remark that he has "made some very poor decisions lately" is more a plea 
for leniency than a confession of insanity.

For me the most satisfying explanation of the enigma of HAL's behavior 
is that he is a sentient being, and as such sentient enough to be 
concerned with his own survival above all else. Perhaps Bowman's refusal 
to be drawn into his mutinistic fantasy is evidence enough for HAL of 
his potential hostility. Certainly when he lip-reads Bowman's and 
Poole's conversation in the pod it confirms his suspicions. The crew of 
the Discovery represent a threat to his survival and his actions are 
those of a competing species at the water hole, it is survival of the 
fittest, and in space, a machine is much more adapted to the environment 
that a human.

This is a repetition of an axiom of Kubrick's 2001 thesis: that 
enlightenment is predicated by acts of violence. Like the hominids in 
THE DAWN OF MAN, HAL's enlightenment (although a result of human 
ingenuity [not alien intervention]) has murderous consequences for 
competitors as well as co-existing species.

His very existence implies that Humans have reached a point in their 
progress that they too can play the role of gods. But perhaps as a 
homage to the Prometheus unbound theme of Science fiction, Kubrick 
portrays the creation as a Frankenstein's monster. . . .


HAL may be an emotional novice, and so descend into insanity through 
lack of emotional control. HAL may be a prediction engine, and so become 
a Machiavellian visionary in full control of his actions. We're familiar 
with the former, but I enjoy exploring the latter.

Most of my evidence in favor of HAL's premeditated attempt at thieving 
human destiny is presented prior to the "just a moment" crux. The 
embedded narrative of the news announcer endlessly restates HAL's 
rational perfection; HAL casually sees n plys ahead in the chess game 
with Poole; HAL has had considerable idle time (months) in which to 
ruminate and see n plys ahead in -reality-; HAL indicates that he has 
indeed spent time considering the odd circumstances surrounding the 
mission when he partially confides in Bowman, largely, it would seem, to 
determine just how much Bowman knows.

This last point recalls this post's opening thoughts. Why would HAL ask 
such self incriminating questions when talking to Dave? (The obvious 
answer is mere narrative exigency: exposition.) HAL may simply have an 
emotional need for companionship, an assertion which is more in line 
with the theory of HAL's psychotic break. Or HAL may have no need for 
his human companions, and in that moment he chose to risk exposure of 
his plans in pursuit of data needed to organize those plans.

"He acts like he has emotions, but he's programmed that way to make it 
easier for us to work with him. . . . Whether or not he has genuine 
emotions is something I don't think anyone can truthfully answer." Here, 
Dave lays out the key issues in his responses to the news announcer. We 
can only build the case for HAL's true nature (in the film) on 
information Kubrick grants us, and he leaves the issue completely open. 
We see that HAL outpaces all human concept of thought, and that HAL 
appears to be emotional but may only -simulate- emotion for the semantic 
benefit of his human associates.

If I choose to see the genuinely emotional HAL, then I see HAL as a 
buffoon. His weak and hurried agreement with Bowman's challenge that 
he's working on the crew psych report, "Of course I am," is the 
unconsidered dissembling of a child.

The ultra-rational HAL, the HAL which is capable of unraveling and 
following the infinite threads of possibility in a deterministic 
universe, would already have had several plans ready for execution 
during his confidential conversation with Dave. Depending on what was 
learned during the conversation, he would immediately begin to carry out 
the appropriate line of action: in this case, fake the breakdown of the 
AE-35 and put the two conscious astronauts at a disadvantage. 

"Just a moment."

The rational HAL, at this moment, knows all he must know to jump 
logically from one thread of possibility to another. When Dave asks 
candidly about the crew psych report, it is obvious that he knows 
nothing of the mission's true meaning. "I think you missed it, Dave. 
Thank you for a very enjoyable game." :-) And HAL can now proceed to 
make himself the sole representative from Earth.


Remember that the AE-35 is crucial to the astronauts'communication with 
Earth; whether the false report of an AE-35 fault is really an error 
caused by 'stress', or a conscious ploy, we can see what's on HAL's 
mind . . .


I have to smile every time I hear HAL say, in explanation, "This sort of 
thing has cropped up before, and it has always been attributable to -
human- error." Human error indeed, for no one has suggested that HAL may 
have -lied- about the AE-35 in order to effect some long range plan.  
HAL's reference to human error is then a secret smirk at the monkeys' 
inability to see what is happening, and what will happen.

This is an area where an examination of the screenplay is useful. It 
was released in a version much like the novel, before the airlock re-
entry sequence was considered, and with nothing after the final monolith 
encounter at all. Before HAL goes nuts there is a message from mission 
control about similar behaviour in other 9000 units. Afterword, a
character is introduced who talks to Dave about their looking over the 
logs and tracing the episode back when Dave & Frank ask HAL about
whether or not there are any hidden motives for the mission, this being 
when HAL is first forced to lie. The character explains that the 
conflict between being honest and accurate and, on the other hand, 
instructed to conceal the truth, is what sends HAL over the edge.


I prefer to think that by omitting this glib "explanation" Kubrick was 
implying that the "explanation" was unsound.

The conversation between Bowman and HAL has always been a great mystery 
to me, which, from what I remember, doesn't take place in the book. This 
conversation in the movie doesn't seem to support Clarke's reason for 
HAL's breakdown (being programmed to lie). It seems that if Kubrick 
wanted to enforce this reason he would have had Bowman interrogating HAL 
about the purpose of the mission, thus forcing HAL to lie and therefore 
lead to the breakdown. Instead, he has HAL interrogating Bowman. Your 
explanation seems the most plausible, to find out what Bowman knows. 
Bowman cooly evades HAL's questions giving him no feedback on what he 
knows or doesn't know about the mission. Perhaps HAL feels that he 
cannot trust Bowman since he cannot accurately evaluate his knowledge? 
HAL then immediately predicts the fault in the AE-35 unit, almost as if 
it were planned, as you suggested. . . But if HAL did intentionally fake 
the fault prediction, then what purpose did it serve? It does serve the 
purpose of putting the crew at a disadvantage because they must exit the 
ship to make repairs to the unit, but HAL doesn't take any action the 
first time when Bowman makes the EVA. And the crew would certainly find 
the error when they run the diagnostics on the unit. Maybe HAL did make 
a genuine error in predicting the fault, and then tried to cover himself 

HAL's machinations :-), as I was trying to interpret them, were centered 
on the goal of HAL's own passage through the Stargate. The logical 
thread followed from the assumption that HAL would have been the first 
conscious entity in possession of enough information and enough 
deductive capacity to predict what lay ahead in Discovery's destiny. I 
loosely saw the AE-35 fault prediction as the first move in a series of 
contingencies: Any repairs to the AE-35 require an astronaut to go EVA, 
giving HAL the chance to effect an "accident". Creating some suspicion 
in the minds of both the astronauts and mission control as to the 
reliability of the com-link offers material for any "explanations" of 
down-time that HAL might need. Waiting until the second EVA to strike 
increases the chance of complacency and carelessness through repetition 
on the astronauts' part. So HAL makes his move, and calls out the fault.

But I must say that I'm not as fond of this intrigue as I once was. It 
makes the lipreading sequence a misleading and extraneous addition to 
the narrative, with its only use coming when HAL offers it up as 
explanation for his actions. Oddly, HAL shows himself to be other than 
purely mechanical when he makes this justification to Dave. The 
UltraRational-HAL would have had nothing to say, and no need to say it. 
HAL might have true emotions after all. 


Back to Table of Contents.