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Thursday, 25 June, 1998, 18:38 GMT
Will computers ever be intelligent?

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey is 30 years old. Our science editor, Dr David Whitehouse, wonders if we will ever be able to build the star of the film, HAL, the intelligent computer.

Do you remember 1968? The year of the miniskirt, the Kodak Instamatic camera and funny hairstyles? Dick Fosbury did his flop at the Olympics and Philip K Dick wrote "Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep", later to be filmed as Blade Runner.

But it was a mechanical being of a somewhat different kind that grabbed our attention. Its name was Hal. Yes, the film 2001:A Space Odyssey is 30 years old.

It was the first science fiction movie to become part of film history. Of course there had been good science fiction films before, for example, This Island Earth, as well as Forbidden Planet and George Pal's Destination Moon. But there had been nothing quite like 2001.

In it, the humans are two-dimensional. Instead, it is the intelligent computer, HAL, who steals the show. We stare into its glowing red eye for longer than we look at any human in the film. If we had looked so long at any human, they would have been characterised as evil.

Growing apart

I am less sure these days if we will be able to build a computer that is intelligent in the sense that it would be a "person". Today, we seem further away from building a HAL than we thought we were in 1968.

Despite incredible advances in computer technology, there is still so much we do not know about the brain and the nature of intelligence. A computer intelligence seems very far off.

But if our brains are just complicated machines, machines that are made of cells, nerves, chemicals and electrical impulses, then it should be possible to make something similar when we know enough about how the brain works.

Or perhaps a computer intelligence will happen another way. When computers get more powerful, bigger, faster, might they one day cross the threshold of true intelligence all by themselves?

Millions of years between us

In science fiction, we tend to think of intelligent machines as being coldly logical. But perhaps they will not always be like that. In 2001, HAL has the most emotional speech, when he pleads for life.

And when I think about the possibility of actually building a computer like HAL, it is a scene nearer the beginning of the film that gets me thinking.

It is when the apes reach out hesitantly to touch the newly appeared monolith. A million years later humans in spacesuits reach out to touch another monolith that had been dug up on the Moon. But even though a million years had passed between the two events, mankind was still the ape with an apes instincts and primal fears.

And that will be the problem. If we do build an intelligent computer, it will be an alien intelligence not like ourselves. When we talk to it, we will still be the ape.

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