HAL's abilities sometimes exceed computer reality

By Julie Wurth
News-Gazette Staff Writer

     HAL, the artificial intelligence with an attitude in "2001," could sing, play chess, outsmart a couple of astronauts and read lips.
     How accurate were the movie's depictions of computer science at the turn of the century?
     Some good, some not so good, says David Stork, chief scientist at the Ricoh California Research Center and a consulting associate professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University.
     Stork is compiling a book, "HAL's Legacy: Leading Scientists Reflect Upon Film's Most Famous Computer and the Prospects for Intelligent Machines in 2001 and Beyond. . . ."
     "If there's one lesson from my book, it's that they were optimistic, or the field was much harder than we expected. But it's also more interesting," Stork said.
     Science has succeeded in areas that are very proscribed, with a small number of rules.
     "The parts where we're having the most difficulty is where we deal with lots of real-world knowledge. Dialogue - conversation - is extremely complicated," he said.
     What futurists like "2001" novelist Arthur Clarke thought would be relatively easy have turned out to be difficult, Stork said.
     "Computers are very good at chess, but they still can't recognize a hand reliably," Stork said.
     The incredibly complex operations involved in perception are beyond humans' conscious awareness, Stork said.
     "Trying to capture that and put it into a computer is hard to do," he said.
     On the plus side, scientists have developed powerful and reliable computers that can control flight in space.
     And chess-playing computer chips have been developed that can defeat all but about 100 humans, Stork said. By 2001, computers will likely beat all but two or three top players, he said.
     One thing the makers of "2001" didn't consider: the push to make computers smaller, cheaper and faster, so they can be used in everything from wristwatches to doorknobs on hotels. The movie had no personal computers, Stork noted.
     At one key moment in the film, HAL sees two astronauts plotting to disconnect him after HAL starts to rum amok. HAL understands what they're saying by reading their lips through the window of a space pod.
     "Clarke said that was the only scene in the movie that he thought was implausible," said Stork, who is writing a chapter on that segment.
     "We have the world's best computer lip-reading system, and it's not as good as HAL," Stork said. "I've had a professional lip reader try to read the scene, and she couldn't."
     Ravishankar Iyer, professor of computer and electrical engineering at the UI, is writing a chapter for Stork's book on computer reliability - how to make computers that won't fail.
     Steven Wolfram, founder of Wolfram Research in Champaign, is writing on human-computer interactions.
     Other scientists are tackling how to put common sense into computers; voice recognition; how to make computers recognize or express emotion; and computer generated-speech.
     Most computer speech sounds halting and artificial, Stork said.
     "HAL has this beautiful, silky voice with just the right amount of emotion," Stork said.

This article has been electronically republished with permission from The News-Gazette.
©1997 The News-Gazette