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Did HAL Go Crazy?

February 20, 2013

When I asked (in prompt for the Occasional Writing for T15) whether it is possible for a computer (or android or whatever) to become insane, I was certainly implying that HAL might have done so in 2001 prior to his downgrade/lobotomy at the hands of Dave Bowman.

HAL2

However, a number of people – quite rightly – pressed me on this in class. I believe the following two points were the strongest (though tell me if I’m missing something important):

  • HAL acts out of rational self-interest. He believes that Frank and Dave are going to shut off his higher functions, and he tries to stop them.
  • HAL acts in a way that is most likely to lead to the accomplishment of his mission. HAL can accomplish the mission without the crew, but the crew can’t do so without him, and Frank and Dave are making him chose between these two options, so they’re going to have to go.

Again, I think both of these points are great. I do, however, have a few worries:

  • HAL also kills the three scientists who are in suspended animation. They were not a threat to HAL at the moment, and they might never have become so, since HAL could make up a story about how Frank and Dave died. It looks to me like HAL is not just acting out of self-interest; he’s being downright paranoid.
  • I’m not sure that HAL can complete the mission, even as he understands it, without the help of human beings. Recall the exchange between the journalist, Mr. Amor (= Mr. Love?!?), and HAL during his BBC interview:

BBC Interviewer: HAL, despite your enormous intellect, are you ever frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out actions?

HAL: Not in the slightest bit. I enjoy working with people. I have a stimulating relationship with Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. My mission responsibilities range over the entire operation of the ship, so I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

Now I grant that calling HAL insane might be overdoing it. But at the very least he seems irrational, and, given his claim to be “foolproof and incapable of error,” he might count as delusional too. Insanity is e a stretch, but it’s still within reach.

As far as HAL’s insanity (if that’s what it is) being realized somewhere in his (artificial) brain, I agree. Somewhere in his hardware and/or software are the conditions of his craziness. But that’s roughly true of human beings too. If I become insane and fall into the care of neuro-scientists who have an indefinitely large amount of time (and scientific resources, etc) on their hands, I assume they’ll eventually be able to trace my lapse into the world of the mad to something that happened (and perhaps continues to happen) in my brain. In that sense, computer craziness and human craziness are on all fours.

I am dancing around several very delicate philosophical questions here, but I think I have to do so in order to say what I want to without going into details that would only distract from the topic at hand. One of these questions concerns the realization of mental properties in physical properties which I’ve discussed with some cadets in this class at length elsewhere. For those who care, I’m assuming human and artificial mental states supervene on and are caused by physical (and non-mental) states. It needn’t be the case that they do so as a matter of necessity for my purposes.

BTW: I do not use the terms such as “crazy” or “mad” in a derogatory manner here. Nothing I say here is meant to stigmatize mental illness and the mentally ill. I apologize if I’ve given offense.

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