Cyberfest '97 kicks off

Larry Smarr, director of NCSA, talks about Urbana's place in computing history

Ali Kawa, Jared Mauck and Candace Stevenson contributed to this story

      HAL, the lip-reading computer from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," put Urbana, Illinois on the map in 1968 by citing the city as his birthplace. At the kick-off of a week-long birthday celebration for HAL, University of Illinois faculty member Larry Smarr talked about why HAL said that famous line, saying, "Urbana, for decades, was one of the great watering holes for scientific research."
      Much of Smarr's speech focused on his relationship with Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the novel on which the movie was based. Smarr admited that the University's computing efforts really did not influence Clarke's decision on where to locate HAL's birthplace. Instead, Smarr said it was simply a tribute to Clarke's old astronomy professor, George McVittie, who had joined the faculty at Illinois.
      Smarr explained that Clarke had predicted 1997 as the year that computers would be able to act like humans mainly because it was close to 2001--not because of any scientific advancement he thought would be developed. While Smarr acknowledged that researchers have come a long way in the past 30 years of computer development, he admitted there are still plenty of breakthroughs to be made. He remains hopeful that a supercomputer with HAL's abilities will be "born" in Urbana within the next few decades.
      "I think the chances are pretty good," Smarr said. "But, probably the father of HAL hasn't been born yet. Let's just hope he'll be a student at the University of Illinois."

Photo by Brian Stauffer

Larry Smarr, speaking at the Cyberfest opening ceremony