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Both literary science-fiction fans and outer-space movie
aficionados are today celebrating the birth of perhaps the most famous
fictional computer in history—HAL 9000, the enigmatic artificial intelligence
from both the book and the film, 2001: A
Space Odyssey
. But ask each of these respective groups what HAL’s
“age” is today, and you’ll likely hear two different answers.

In the novel (and screenplay), HAL first came to life on
Jan. 12, 1997, but on the big screen, HAL’s birthday is Jan. 12, 1992. So based
on the source material, HAL turns either 8 or 13 years old today.

Then again, both the book and the film debuted in 1968, so
HAL could arguably be in his late 30s. Regardless of his actual age, HAL and
the works of fiction that spawned him have served as cultural benchmarks for
the progress of consumer technology.

Going by author Arthur C. Clarke’s and director Stanley
Kubrick’s late-1960s estimations, we should be currently enjoying passenger
space flights, stays aboard orbital luxury hotels, and careers on the surface
of the moon—to say nothing of working with fully self-aware artificial
intelligences capable of recognizing both voice and visual clues.

Indeed, by Kubrick’s and Clarke’s measure, who worked
together to coauthor the film’s screenplay, these activities should be so
mundane, so ingrained into our daily consumer experiences that they’re unworthy
of narrative exposition (something notoriously sparse in the film).

It’s ironic, then, that many of the consumer brand names
used to underscore this point in the film were defunct by the time 2001 actually
rolled around. Case in point: In one part of the film, a character makes an
orbital videophone call using the Bell telephone system, famously divested in

Similarly, Pan Am appears not only as a major air carrier
but also as a passenger spaceflight company, despite the fact that the real Pan
American World Airways shut down in 1991. (An unaffiliated airline has since
resumed use of the name.)

In one case, one product became obsolete even before the
film’s debut. RCA Whirlpool appears as the maker of zero-gravity food systems,
despite the fact that the company dropped the RCA name from its appliance products
before the film’s 1968 release.

However, one significant technology brand name that appeared
in several aspects of 2001 is still
going strong, though its often professed connections to the HAL 9000 computer’s
name amount to little more than an eerie coincidence.


What famous technology brand, displayed prominently in 2001: A Space Odyssey, shares an eerily
coincidental connection to the HAL 9000 computer’s name?

IBM is the technology giant in question, a company often
mistakenly credited as the basis for the HAL 9000’s three-letter name. In the
standard English alphabet, the letters H,
A, and L immediately precede the letters I, B, and M, respectively.

The coincidence is so striking that many have often assumed
that the HAL initials are a veiled reference to Big Blue. The fact that a number
of fake IBM products appear in the film—including several monitors and a
spacesuit control—only served to reinforce this assumption.

In actuality, HAL’s real-world creator, Arthur C. Clarke,
and his instructor in the novel, Dr. Chandra, both profess that the HAL name is
shorthand for heuristic algorithm, purportedly
the mathematical principle that serves as the basis for HAL 9000’s artificial
intelligence. Clarke has also gone on record to say that, had he noticed the
IBM-HAL connection before the release of the film or novel, he would have named
the computer something else.

If there’s any actual connection between HAL and IBM that’s
intentional, it’s perhaps the one most cleverly obscured. As embattled
astronaut Dave Bowman slowly disconnects the HAL 9000’s processors, the
computer noticeably regresses in intelligence, ultimately clinging to one of
its first “lessons” in human interaction—a song.

That song, “A Bicycle Built for Two,” was actually
the first song “sung” by any computer—a feat accomplished at Bell
Laboratories in 1961 by an IBM 7094 computer. The touch is a subtle nod to
computer history, if not IBM itself.

And just to hammer home the point, when Clarke penned the
sequel to 2001 in 1982, 2010: Odyssey Two, he didn’t name HAL’s
twin the HAL 9001 or the HAL 9000-B but instead chose SAL 9000. Whether that
will put the HAL-IBM issue to rest is a matter of debate—and of great Geek

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the Dec. 14 edition of Geek
Trivia, “Greatest
of the mall,”
wherein TechRepublic member MGarvis disputes my characterization of Italy as the land of pasta:

“The land of pasta indeed… I think you will find that
Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China some time before malls!”

While I too have often heard that the Chinese
“invented” noodles and that Marco Polo introduced them to Italy, this
notion is actually just another urban myth. This Web site
does a rather fantastic job of chronicling the simultaneous and independent
development of pasta throughout historical cultures, proving that Italy has
plenty of claim to the term.

The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.