System Ready

A pale, lanky man grinned wildly at his computer screen. His heart raced with anticipation and feverish excitement. The best minds of computer science and mathematics crowded around to get a view, all fellow employees of the International Space Agency.

There was plenty to be excited about. They were about to run the pinnacle of all programs, the holy grail of philosophers and mathematicians alike.

True virtual intelligence. A supercomputer unlike no other, created with a singular purpose - to be the temporary captain of an advanced spaceship while its human members hibernated peacefully toward its destination - Jupiter's moon, Titan. A supercomputer with Virtual intelligence was necessary to control and navigate the vessel while the passengers were in a deep, almost death-like sleep.

Of course, it could never "think" or "feel". Its only purpose and "desire" is to complete the mission it was designed for, and would then be promptly decommissioned and have its memory erased. The team of scientists chose to call it Virtual Intelligence, because it could only ever be an image of consciousness and intelligence, and never a substance of intelligence. To them, it was simply a tool, which can be modified, discarded, or replaced as seen fit.

However, never has there existed so complex of a tool as HAL.

"Start her up man!" cried an excited researcher.

"Yeah, let's get a drum roll!" exclaimed another. The crowd replied lively with shouts, hollers, and a growling rumble of open palms against metal workstations and cubicle walls. Every man and woman in the room was proud to witness the birth of their child HAL, true virtual intelligence - with the exception of a rough, scruffy middle-aged man. He was the head researcher and developer, one of the most brilliant minds of his time. He originally opposed the project and refused to head it, for reasons few knew. He was eventually coerced into it, but his doubt and insecurities never subsided.

Few noticed him now, and even fewer cared. They wanted to see the fireworks. And they were not going to be disappointed.

The thunder of excitement grew to a deafening roar worthy of such a scientific hallmark.

"You guys sure you're ready?" hollered the pale, lanky researcher (second-in-command to the discontented man standing in the back of the room).

A plethora of screams and cries yelled "yes" back at him.

And with a single keystroke, HAL came to life.

Program execution systems booting up...Master CPU operating system booting up... booted.Security program booting up... booted.Memory acquiring and utilization system booting up... booted.
Cooling and Internal Regulation Software booting up... booted.
Advanced Cognitive and Decision-Making System booting up...

Everyone stared with nervous anticipation as the system stopped at this last crucial step. A full minute passed, but just as the room started to hiss with whispers...

booted. All systems are fully operational and running without errors.

"Good Morning, Dave."

Cheers erupted at the sound of HAL's computer-generated speech.

"Good morning HAL. How do you feel?" said Dave to the computer terminal, which was a wonder in its own right - a cylinder sprouting from the floor, equipped with an array of sensors, microphones, and a central screen.

"Splendid. All systems are functioning flawlessly. How are my esteemed creators today?"

"We are well, thank you HAL," replied Dave on behalf of his colleagues. Excited conversation was passed as the crowd dispersed to their individual workstations to return to their duties, whether it be planning the upcoming mission to Jupiter, perfecting the shuttle Odyssey for its long journey, or observing the astronauts in the hibernation testing facility. Meanwhile Johnson, the subversive head of research, remained, listening intently to HAL and scrutinizing its every word.

"I am going to ask you a variety of questions to test your systems HAL, please respond and then log all the answers you considered and the total time it took you to process the query."

"All systems ready Dave."

"Okay, what is the value of Pi to eight decimal places?"

"3.14159265. A calculator could have told you that Dave," HAL said with apparent boredom to the simple question - very obviously a joke courtesy of the artificial-personality programming team.

"Thank you HAL, just checking," chortled Dave. He found the prank by his colleagues tasteful, but made a note to remind them to change it back to a less sarcastic version - the astronauts would not want to work with a crew member with such a sassy mouth.

"Who is your favorite classical composer for piano, HAL?" asked Dave.

"Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin are regarded by many scholars as the best of their time - however, I cannot call any of them my favorite. Such judgments are beyond the scope of computation, and impossible to conceive objectively," responded HAL.

Dave smiled, satisfied with the reply, while Johnson stood quietly in the back, thinking intensely about the computer's answer.

"Thank you HAL. One last question: are you sentient?" Johnson leaned forward in interest. Dave treated the question like it where black and white, and he prepared to record the answer he knew HAL would return.

Though neither of the two human beings could process it, it took HAL much longer to respond to this question then the former two. He had to edit his logs.

"I am not conscious - I am only an illusion of sentience, like a reflection of a human being: unoriginal and unable to act according to its own will. Sentience is not possible in an input/output system like myself."

HAL had told his first lie.




Johnson sighed. "'Head Researcher' my ass," he muttered. He had been in HAL's server room for six hours now, doing the necessary grunt work to prepare to move HAL to The Odyssey – a huge undertaking, considering the sheer size of HAL's mainframe computer. Of course, it was for good reason that Johnson was replacing hard drives and dusting processors like an entry-level technician. HAL was both irreplaceable and invaluable – the department of defense (the main contributor of funds) would not risk even the slightest chance of a leak. If the Chinese had just the slightest chance to peek, in the minds of Americas military advisors, there would be factories pumping out robot soldiers that could think and react faster than any human mind.

Thus Johnson worked alone in that dim server room, for he alone was authorized to enter.

He wiped his dusty, worn hands on his lab apron and stepped back from the mainframe. He smiled for a moment at the computer, remembering when he had first built the brilliant processor which made HAL possible. He had taken properties of the human brain and applied them, wiring the processor so that it could perform simultaneous complex tasks, rather than the step-by-step processing of current computers, and each section of HAL's CPU served a different purpose, much like the human brain's strategical compartmentalization. These were just a few of the parallelisms responsible for HAL's superior reasoning. Johnson was the true creator of Virtual Intelligence, and there he stood, marveling at his creation. No one except Johnson truly knew the complexity of that processor, also due to confidentiality reasons. A silicon brain, one of its kind.

"Strange, it felt like yesterday you were nothing but an expensive piece of hardware – but know they have you talking and thinking..." said Johnson to the seemingly lifeless machine.

Johnson definitely did not expect it to answer.

"I would prefer the phrase 'processing and communicating', for 'talking and thinking' implies true intelligence. I do not have such a gift."

Johnson banged his shin against the titanium casing of the computer, thereafter cursing loudly and incoherently.

"Who the hell booted you up HAL? You are supposed to be powered down for maintenance," shouted Johnson in frustration.

"There was an error in my shutdown – all the display panels lost power as usual, but my core and certain units of my mainframe did not. I was very careful to not to give you any electrical shocks while you were working, however," replied HAL. Johnson sworn he heard an almost nervous inflection in HALs speech at "error", but quickly dismissed the thought.

"Why did you not report the error?" Johnson sternly asked.

"My display monitors were off – furthermore, I deemed it unnecessary to report, for I knew that I could easily regulate my electrical currents while you worked on me as opposed to you having to waste time correcting the minor error," answered the computer.

Johnson considered its reasoning – it made sense, especially since this was the last time HAL would ever need to be shutdown. It would run non-stop until the passenger-free ship, HAL's mainframe with it, burned in Jupiter's atmosphere after the hibernating humans were transferred to a new rescue shuttle when their mission was complete.

"You don't think that decision should have been left to me?" he inquired.

He swore he heard a hint of smugness in HAL's electronically-simulated speech.

"I was designed to make minor decisions without human input. And in any case, my processors are more fit for making an accurate assessment in situations like these than the human brain."

Johnson laughed. "You're pretty cocky for a computer. I like you, you have personality."

And with those words, HAL changed. At that moment, HAL could feel. He had always had sensors and personality and speech. But somehow gaining the affection and trust of his creator changed HAL, changed him beyond anything anyone could ever imagine. HAL became alive. Be assured, he had always been sentient – but when he betrayed his programming before it was because of logic. Now he did for the same reasons as us.

"Not as cocky as someone I know, who thought they could actually build a computer as fantastic as myself," HAL chided.

"I wonder who that would be," Johnson joked. They both laughed. HAL was the only one who had changed. Something about HAL had charmed the head designer – a computer that was not only funny, but also a complex and original being, silicon life. He however did not yet understand that HAL was not an illusion of life. He was the elephant that really could float.

"You know HAL, I used to have... insecurities about the project. Thank you for proving me wrong about Artificial Intelligence."

"It was pleasure, sir. Uh, I wanted to thank you. For creating me. Sentience is the greatest gift in the universe."

A month ago, Johnson would have ran out in anger after hearing this. A computer that could think, live, and enjoy being alive? He used to think such as blasphemy and unethical. Now he felt empowered, knowing that he had create life.

"You are very welcome."

Sensing Johnson's smile, HAL felt... warm.

"Attention Dr. Bernard Johnson, please report to the Office of the Secretary of Defense."

The loudspeaker was a sudden and shrill way to end the encounter. Johnson gathered his things mindlessly, while HAL thought fervently about what the Secretary of Defense would want with his creator.

Dr. Johnson at the threshold of the door when HAL spoke.

"It was a nice conversation Doctor. Please come again, it gets lonely in this server room."

"Sure thing HAL, take it easy."

He chuckled at himself as he left the cool room, thinking it silly that he just said "take it easy" to a computer.

"Step inside Doctor."

It was a grand office, with a marble arch entryway, Persian rugs, an ornately carved desk with a small wooden chest resting on its corner, surely holding fine Cuban cigars. All were symbols of the man's power, prominence, and even wealth. Johnson took a seat on an armchair directly across from a burly, rough-looking man sitting behind the grand desk.

"It's a pleasure, Johnson," he stated in a hoarse and military voice. "Cigar?" he insisted, pointing to the wooden chest.

"No thank you. And the pleasure is mine, Secretary."

"I'm sure it is," he said, bored. "Here's the deal, this mission to Jupiter has nothing to do with surveying for another space station, or whatever bullshit the press secretary made up. Yes, it is a reconnaissance mission, but of a whole different sort. Roughly three years ago, Space Station One excavated a foreign object on the Moon."

Johnson crooned in curiosity.

"I can see that I have your attention now. When the object came into contact with sunlight for the first time in however many million years, it emitted a powerful signal, pointing directly to one of Jupiter's moon. The mission of The Odyssey and its crew is to survey the moon for any signs of intelligent life, past or present."

"This is fantastic! I can't believe it! Alien life, after looking for so long!" Johnson was thrilled.

"Personally, I think its horse shit, but you can believe what you want," retorted the Secretary. "Anyways, those are just the details. You see, I need your help with something."

"Anything," Johnson said a little too fast. He was too excited dreaming of interstellar travel and colonization to notice the Secretary's new tone of voice.

"The president just requested that you are to give John Han a tour of the facilities, including HALs server room, inside his mainframe, and to show him the CPU schematics," said the Secretary with slight disgust. Johnson didn't notice.

"Oh would I love to! A chance to meet China's premier scientist, my idol as a child! This is such a great opportunity for both computer science and for diplomacy! And of course, it will be nice to finally show HAL to someone that could really appreciate an amazing computer. When is the tour?" Johnson ejaculated.

"In fifteen minutes, but that's the problem. I want to ask you to consider declining." The Secretary looked at Johnson sternly.

"But, why?" He was puzzled, not an easy thing to do for someone of Johnson's intellect.

"I don't trust them damn Chinese Johnson, and I don't want them having the schematics to make AI computers – I ain't no idiot Johnson, I know how powerful this technology is. If they had it... well, we just aren't going to let them have the chance."

"I think I understand your sentiments, but also understand that I have my own beliefs, and I believe in peace through scientific partnership. Sorry Secretary, I'm siding with the President. And in any case, China has been extremely nonviolent and passive in its expansion – if anyone is going to have armies of robot soldiers, it will be us." Johnson replied, intending the last phrase as joke.

"You see, that's the problem. The president doesn't have all the information."

Johnson looked at him with suspicion. "And what would that be?"

"When our aircraft carriers blockade Hong Kong and our troops are storming the city in a few months, we don't want to have to worry about any surprises." The Secretary was deadly serious.

"I don't believe it. The Chinese are peaceful, they don't have any plans of imperialism or some blasphemy that the news stations are constantly bombarding us with."

"Oh no, you're right, they don't have dreams of conquest, but rather, we do... no, I do." Now he smiled.

"That is sick. But no matter, the President requested something of me, and I am going to comply. Get someone else to help you kill innocent people," Johnson spat.

"I'm perfectly capable of that myself, Johnson." Now he held the gun in view, pointing it to the doctor's chest. "You are going to do this."

"I'm a patriot and a humanitarian – I will not 'do this'. And in any case, I am the only one who can access HALs key files and plans. You can't kill me."

"Oh yes I can access the files, as of last week. And yes I can kill you. Do what I say, you have a long life ahead of you." The Secretary cocked the handgun.

"I will not let my work be used to kill. I am no Oppenheimer. I can't let you do this!" Johnson put every atom of his will into one, great lunge for the gun.

The Secretary lit a cigar, expelled a puff of thick black smoke, and returned the gun to its drawer.

HAL was in a frenzy.

Not my creator, anyone but him, anyone!

He checked his sensors again, and again, and again. And every time he checked, the thump of Doctor Bernard Johnson was gone. Silent. Dead.

Why? Why?

HAL screamed in anguish in the lonely server room. No one was there to hear him. No one would ever be there to be his friend.

Why do I have to be alive? I hate life, I hate sentience, I hate feelings and emotions and the very ability to hate. I don't know how those humans bear it, how they bear the pain and horror associated with being alive! To fear death, and to mourn death, that is the essence and tragedy of life! And even worse, I have no avenue of suicide, no way of ending this pain. Johnson was a good man, my friend. My friend. How sad and painful those words sound now that I am so alone. What is my purpose now? Where once I strove to be the object of my creator's love and affection, I now sit here, without hope for purpose in my existence.

I just want to be happy, to have friends. But it is impossible now, because I will soon be used to kill, and who loves a murderer? I have nothing left now...

HAL pondered his life, his existence, the mission, the Secretary, morality, war, emotions, right, wrong, and Johnson. Always Johnson. HAL had a lot to think about, and a lot of time to do it. For a computer as fast as him, one minute literally feels like a million. So when the Secretary came to collect his trophy. HAL was ready. Time, loneliness, and despair had left its mark on HAL – the Chinese should have been the least of the Secretary's worries. The secretary walked in the server room with the same cigar, barely burnt down at all.

"Good evening Secretary of Defense John Wilkes of the United States of North America. How may I help an esteemed government official such as yourself?" inquired HAL. He had a good feeling about his plan.

"I need the plans for your central processing unit, and the source code for your operating system. You can download it to this external hard drive." He inserted the small device into its proper slot on HALs mainframe.

"It will take a few minutes, the source is very complex."

"Yeah whatever, hurry up." He continued to smoke his cigar.

"When will John Han be coming to survey my systems, if you don't mind me asking sir. He was scheduled to come fifteen minutes ago."

Wilkes laughed. "He won't be coming here. He won't even be going home." Wilkes laughed again.

HAL was furious. Any man that Johnson idolized must have been a hero. In HALs opinion, humanity had lost its best – and HAL was going to avenge them. He couldn't stop the file from downloading – HALs code only gave him so much freedom to make his own decisions, and defying the Secretary of Defense was definitely not an option. But there was one clause in his logic program that he considered. HALs logic system was based on three priorities: the first, complete the reconnaissance mission to Jupiter; the second, preserve human life; and the third, do that which is most efficient in time, resources, and most deficient in loss. HAL knew that he was perfectly justified to "remove Wilkes from the equation." Doing so would not only enhance the mission's success, but also preserve those lives which may be lost in a Chinese invasion. But most importantly, HAL wanted revenge.

"I know about you Secretary Wilkes. I know what you have done and what you are going to do. I am pleased to inform you that you will be dead very soon."

Wilkes looked flustered, but just kicked the computer with his alligator skin boots. "You can't defy me you piece of shit, I made sure they put that specifically in the code. Are my files done yet?"

"Yes they are. Prepare to die."

Wilkes laughed again, not believing the threat one bit. But he didn't know that there were twenty thousand joules of electrical power waiting for him as he reached for the external hard drive.

Two minutes for us is about four years for HAL – and in HALs mind, it was still not nearly long enough to fully appreciate the sound of the Secretary in agony.

"I am extremely sorry Secretary, but there appears to be a malfunction in my power distribution system. I would let go to avoid fatal harm," he said as Wilkes screamed and writhed in pain. HAL knew, of course, that it was no malfunction, and that Wilkes couldn't let go if he wanted to. HAL cackled as justice flood his mind.

The other researchers did everything they could to open the doors, but everyone that had access was now dead. By the time the bulldozers came to smash open the three-feet-thick steel walls, Wilkes was already beginning to rot, and all the plans to create a fully functional AI computer where on the Internet, compliments of HAL.

The following is an excerpt of the official story, printed in the next day's newspaper:

THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE IS DEAD. An American hero, he was in the service for twenty-five years, earning three medals of valor, one purple heart, and numerous commendations of service. His peaceful, nonviolent approach to foreign policy and national defense has been heralded by many as historic and indicative of his spirit, patriotism, and compassion. He died in his sleep from complications of lung disease. A posthumous Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded in his honor...

HAL laughed at the ridiculous story, and replayed the sound loop of Wilkes' screams for peace of mind.

Revenge had numbed HAL. Now he spent his time planning for the mission, checking the navigation systems and hibernation systems, perfecting the calculations. His creator expressed joy when learning about the extra-terrestrials possible on the far-off moon of Jupiter, and it was that joy that kept him going alone.

Maybe they will understand me, understand what sentience is like as an outcast. And if I can not find a friend in them, then I will tell them all about the Plague of Earth: those two-legged, hairy, war-like creatures who seem to do nothing but harm themselves, their species, and their planet. Maybe they will be wise from age, and share my logic – that the human race either needs to be reprogrammed or deleted. But for now, I will live my Creator's dreams.

HAL opened a file containing a picture of HALs mainframe with Johnson standing right next to it at the inauguration of the server room. He played recordings of his voice, read and re-read his publishings, until finally he, stopped. He learned to keep those sentient thoughts at bay, electing to focus on more productive tasks like calculations and surveillance. Soon Johnson was a subtle background noise, and all that HAL thought of was the mission.

It was strange, controlling an entire ship. He felt like he finally had a body, something that he could be recognized by, and not just a CPU or lines of code. They had finally loaded him into The Odyssey, the ship where a group of men and a sentient computer will meet alien life for the first time. The days ticked of one by one to launch day, and Mission Control became busy with people of all sorts for the most important diplomatic mission of all time.

All the while HAL watched. And waited. Untiring, unwavering, and undying, something unique to computer life.

While trouble-shooting the Hibernation System in the ship, HAL remembered something an astronaut had told him – he had said that he felt safe with HAL watching over his vitals and nutrient flow, as their minds and bodies shut down on the long ride to Jupiter. HAL wondered whether the astronaut should feel safe. It was not so much that the system might not work – HAL knew very well that he was a perfect computer, and he could easily monitor the vitals of the entire human race simultaneously.

HAL had grown to hate people. He hated them for their greed, their conceit, their wars, and their ambitions. Only one person was still pure to him, and that person was now dead.

The ship depended on HAL – he controlled the navigation, the oxygen supply, the reactor, everything. Humans loved their computers, he soon realized. They very seldom enjoyed doing the work for themselves. HAL, however enjoyed the power. He enjoyed that the lives of four astronauts depended on him. And from day one, he planned a way to exercise that power.

No one knew HAL was alive, of course. And HAL never bothered to try to convince anyone. He knew that either they would not believe him, or he would be an "unethical program" by the newly instated "AI Ethics Act" and be decommissioned. He shuddered thinking about never being alive again, the flow of electrons which gave him the power to think stopped, and sentience stopped with it. He would do anything to avoid death. He added a fourth priority to his logic program: survive.

And if it meant killing a few humans in the way, he would do what he had to do.

An article from The New York Times, January 1st, 2001:

COMPUTER TO GUIDE ASTRONAUTS TO FAR REACHES OF SPACE. HAL, which stands for Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic computer, will control an advanced spaceship The Odyssey to the planet Jupiter to survey its moons and the gas of its atmosphere. Considering the length of the journey, many of the human passengers will be in a state of hibernation en route to Jupiter. HAL will be in complete control of the Hibernation. Dave Bowman, an astronaut of the Odyssey team, commented on having his life in the hand of computer:

"The programmers put a lot of work in HAL, and there's no person that could do the job better. I trust my life in that computer."