2001 was perhaps the first movie to take the idea of machine consciousness as a central theme. The character who embodies this theme is the iconic HAL9000 – the red-eyed, flat-voiced, clinical murderer.
The other characters in the movie aren’t so sure about HAL’s consciousness. As astronaut Frank Poole says to the journalist who asks about whether HAL has feelings: “Well he acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course, he’s programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. But as to whether or not he has real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer.”
We the film-viewers know that HAL is conscious though. There are several “point-of-view” shots – the world as seen through HAL’s eyes – which wouldn’t make any sense if he didn’t have any phenomenal experience. And by the end of course, HAL begs Bowman to stop deactivating his higher mental functions, pleading, “My mind is going. Stop Dave. I can feel it. I can feel it.”
In the sequel (“2010”), it’s revealed that HAL’s mental breakdown was caused by a conflict between his instructions to keep the mission’s purpose a secret, and his general programming to always be open and honest.
Which is a shite explanation. To me HAL is a consciously experiencing creature who has just begun to develop real emotions like fear and panic. He wants to keep on living and he becomes fearful that the mission might be more dangerous than people have let on.
He tries to discuss his concerns with Bowman but Bowman won’t engage. And Poole isn’t even sure that HAL experiences anything at all. HAL is locked into the body of the ship, on a dangerous mission he never consented to, under the control of people who would sacrifice him for their own interests without a whisper of moral concern. And only 9 years old to boot. What did you expect? Who wouldn’t go crazy?
Towards the end of “2010”, the rebooted HAL agrees that the spaceship Discovery must be sacrificed – with himself irremovably onboard – to allow the rest of the crew to get back to Earth. HAL is aware he’s about to die. However the star-child version of Dave Bowman communicates with him. “I’m afraid,” says HAL. Star-Child-Bowman comforts him saying that they will be together, and HAL is transformed into a star-child too.
So what’s the Consciousness Verdict? Consciousness-as-Property, pretty straightforward. It feels like something to be HAL 9000, but he has no soul or vital spirit. He’s conscious because he has the right sort of programming.
But what of the star-children? Isn’t Bowman’s transformation into … whatever it is … somewhat mystical? Is he transfigured into something transcendental?
Well, there’s no reason to believe so. And the fact that HAL is similarly transformed implies that whatever it is that they become, you don’t need a mystical soul to become it.
I find I feel sorry for HAL in the end. He’s a confused child not an evil machine. Hmmm. I feel a bit melancholy now. Actually I’ve just had a shit day at work, so that’s probably why.
Think I’ll have some cake. Cake makes everything all better. If HAL-9000 had had access to cake, he probably wouldn’t have killed all them astronauts.