HAL the Engineer

SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t read or watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, you should probably stop now and reconsider your cultural literacy.

A conversation last weekend ended up focusing on how the character HAL in 2001: ASO took the easy-to-fix spacecraft paradigm to an extreme when he tried to remove the hardest-to-fix parts of the spacecraft: the humans. (Don’t Mechanical Engineers talk about fun things at parties?) In retrospect, I think HAL actually occupies an interesting intersection between the problems of the hard-to-break paradigm and the limits on computer thinking.

In 2001:ASO, HAL, the ship’s AI comes to the conclusion that the Humans on board the spacecraft are actually the biggest liability to the mission. While you could look at this as making the ship easier to fix (a dead human is very hard to fix indeed) I think that HAL was actually falling into the ‘make it as hard to break as possible’ trap. It’s true that in space, humans are vulnerable, especially since so many other failures have the secondary effect of breaking us – life support failure, a window breaking, etc. Thus, from a hard-to-break perspective, getting rid of the humans makes some morbid sense.

Of course HAL sees humans as the weakest link. A robot can deal with anything it can possibly imagine better than a human. Ah, but therein lies the rub. The humans are far better at dealing with the things that they can’t possibly imagine – like the ship’s computer turning murderous. Thus, from an easy-to-fix perspective, humans become extremely valuable.

Perhaps it’s a bit pie-in-the-sky, but I think that a shift towards an easy-to-fix paradigm of spacecraft engineering goes hand in hand with an increase in manned missions. As Julian Simon pointed out, the human mind is the ultimate resource – one that is far easier to leverage if it’s onboard rather than in a control center millions of miles away, to say nothing of the incentives.



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