1997: The coming of HAL
UI to honor '2001' computer and cyberfuture
By Julie Wurth
News-Gazette Staff Writer
The University of Illinois is throwing a huge birthday party for one of its most famous sons - just as soon as he's born.
HAL, the troubled mainframe genius of "2001: A Space Odyssey," is scheduled to go on-line Jan. 12, 1997, at Urbana, according to Arthur C. Clarke's futuristic novel.
In HAL's honor, UI is planning a weeklong "Cyberfest" in 1997, hoping to draw big names from the computer, communications and entertainment industries.
Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka now, has already signed on - at least via satellite - and the UI is thinking big for the rest of the guest list, too.
Among the invitees: "2001" director Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks (reportedly a "2001" fanatic) and Bill Gates.
Plans are still a bit fuzzy. Under consideration are seminars, a technology fair, film festival, computer-chess tournaments, performances at Krannert and some kind of anchor event, either live or for broadcast - maybe a video with celebrities saying "Happy Birthday, HAL."
UI spokeswoman Carol Menaker said organizers hope to have plans firmed up by spring.
"We're really in the early stages," Menaker said. "If any one piece of it happens, and we have a birthday party, it'll be great. We're going to do something locally, even if nothing happens nationally."
The UI is banking on alumni connections to make it work.
Film critic Roger Ebert has agreed to contact the reclusive Kubrick, now living in England. Other alumni have ties to Lucasfilms, Turner Entertainment Co. - which now owns the rights to the movie - and even the actor who gave HAL his voice.
"If it takes connections, the university has them," Menaker said. "If it takes a lot of money, we probably won't do it."
Fans of "2001" may quibble with the timing of the celebration. Kubrick's award-winning 1968 film quoted HAL saying he "became operational" in 1992, not 1997.
David Stork, a California engineer and self-styled expert on "2001," said there was some kind of mix-up when the script was read.
"The actor who read that thought that 1997 was so ridiculously far into the future that he mistakenly read it as 1992," said Stork, who estimates he has seen the film more than 30 times.
Actually, Stork's copy of an old "2001" script cites yet another year: 1991. Stork said the script subsequently underwent several revisions.
Whatever. The UI is sticking with the date in the book.
Stork also disputes another HAL legend: that HAL's name was derived by shifting the letters of IBM one position to the left.
"Everyone I've heard who refers to it says it was just complete happenstance," Stork said. "Three-letter acronyms pervade the film. They wanted it pronounceable and they wanted it male. They didn't say what it stood for."
Why did Clarke choose Urbana for HAL's birthplace?
Legend has it that he based the HAL 9000 on the UI's ILLIAC IV, considered primitive by today's supercomputing standards but top of the line back then. ILLIAC I was one of the first digital computers developed in the world.
Clarke dashed those notions in a recent letter to the UI.
"I want to stress that the reason why I chose Urbana-Champaign was because my old math professor, George McVittie from Kings College in London, spent his last years there," Clarke wrote.
Nonetheless, UI officials are determined to showcase the UI's computer legacy, starting with the ILLIACs.
"Champaign-Urbana's this major node on the computing map," said Judy Tolliver. "The rest of the country doesn't realize it, really. MIT and Stanford, they get all the attention. We think Champaign-Urbana's every bit as important as those places."
After ILLIAC came PLATO, the first computer education program which later evolved into Novanet. Then came the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which spawned Mosaic and Netscape.
"It all started here," Tolliver said.
Tolliver is the one who came up with the 1997 birthday bash. She was waxing poetic with some alumni a couple of years ago about the UI's computer science legacy when the idea hit her.
"I said, 'Gosh, even HAL was born here.' Then I wondered, when did that happen? I ran out and got the book '2001' and read it, and I went 'bingo,' " she said.
At first, it was to be a computer science department celebration, with a reunion of all the scientists who worked on the ILLIAC computers in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Then we realized there was no computer science department then," Tolliver said.
So she approached College of Engineering administrators, who were enthusiastic. Eventually, it grew into a campus event.
"I've been using the term Computer Woodstock," Tolliver said. "That's what I'd like to see it become. People from all walks of life from all over the country flocking to the Quad for this celebration - computer enthusiasts, movie enthusiasts, science fiction people, all united by the idea of celebrating the computer. Because where would we be without it?"
Stork said "2001" was one of the most carefully researched science fiction films ever made and an inspiration for computer scientists then coming of age.
"Clarke and Kubrick studied things very, very carefully, with the goal of making it plausible," he said. "This is great stuff. It's rare that you can tie together science fantasy and science reality so closely."
Who, after seeing the film, could forget that softly ominous HAL voice ("I'm sorry, Dave"), or the all-seeing eye that could even read lips?
"We all saw it in college," said Rick Kubetz of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, who remembers theater crowds cheering when HAL mentioned his birthplace.
The UI is planning to make HAL's birthday party a community event, with a technology fair co-sponsored by the Champaign County Network, or CCNet. Schools will be invited to take part, Menaker said.
"We have a lot we can do with it," Kubetz said. "I think it's going to be fun, and I think it's the kind of thing people are going to get excited about."
Just don't get HAL too excited.
See also: The official online Cyberfest schedule
This article has been electronically republished with permission from The News-Gazette.
©1997 The News-Gazette