Story behind the Passage
Yesterday afternoon, they screened Space Odyssey in church. I have to admit, I went without checking how long the movie would be. But I wanted to go see it, no matter what, because I knew that movies shown in such an atmosphere leave special impressions. And I also knew that I would not watch science fiction movies at home. I hardly watch any movies, actually. So, when I go somewhere, I kind of make sure I stay there and watch it till the end. The end, in this case, took almost 2.5 hours to approach. But I did not check my watch in-between because it truly was a fascinating ride that left me somewhat puzzled in many moments. But I liked that.
I am sick of making sense of everything.
I like not having a clue.
It makes you grow.
We did have a discussion at the end and it was quite interesting and stimulating. There were people there who had watched the movie so many times before and they shared how they always discovered something new or interpret something differently when they watch it again. The pastor also talked about how he had seen it for the first time when he was a teenager and how he now interprets some scenes differently from a theological perspective. It was quite a great crowd of people sharing their views and I was impressed how much they saw in the movie and how they related their observations to the stories in the Bible. It was a bit like a seminar in literary studies in the old days when students were still able to connect the dots.
No, I am not being pessimistic.
I am just describing my thoughts from yesterday.
And I am not blaming anybody, I am just mourning the decline.
For me, there were so many scenes to ponder that will stay with me for a long time, I guess. But there was one which particularly touched me. It was the one that you see above when Bowman, the only remaning astronaut on board, decides to turn off Hal. Hal 9000 is a super computer and the real captain of the spaceship. But he/it becomes somewhat dangerous because of a suspected mistake, which is why the two crew members think about turning him/it off. Before they get the chance to do so, he/it commits revenge on them which then leads to the decision of Bowman to really need him/it off completely. And then this remarkable last dialogue happens between the human being and the computer with the human voice. It really moved me to watch how the director crafted this scene.
“I became operational at the Hal Plant in Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1997.” You might wonder now why the hell I am especially picking this somwhat meaningless sentence. And it is very easy. This is the sentence before the song starts which really brought up this image of an old man dying in my inner eyes. The fact that Hal shares his birthdate reminded me of the scenes you witness in so many hospitals and nursing homes. Were you ever present when a doctor or someone from outpatient care “tested” the sanity/brain function of your older relatives? When the patients are still “sane,” they usually give a precise answer to the exact question that was asked, e.g., the place or date of birth. But often, if dementia is quite advanced, they say the entire thing, like a monotonous song text, even when they are not asked for it, i.e., my names is… I was born… on … 19…. They do so because this information is so deeply stored in their long-term memory. And this part of the brain is the one that dies very slowly in Hal’s case; it takes Bowman to remove all the memory cards to get there — to complete the “murder.”
The same logic applies to the Daisy song which Hal offers to sing. Again, it is stored in his/its childhood memory and just like the old man or woman approaches the phase when all short-term knowledge and other cognitive functions stop functioning properly anymore, the songs from childhood still come up. And they are memorized without any mistakes. We know that singing also stimulates certain parts of the brain that help improve the mental state of dementia patients. In this case, Bowman is using the song singing to keep track of the level of “consciousness” of the computer, as he pulls out more and more of the memory cards from Hal’s “brain.” And as he progresses, the voice gets more and more distorted and finally mutes.
In both cases, the mechanical recitation of the birth date and the song singing, the computer returns to his/its origins in the seconds before death. And the entire movie ends on a similar note. I do not want to share too many details in case people still want to watch it. Still, what I can say is that there is a beautiful circle of life crafted in this story. And the fact that Hal dies before the human dies also relates this to our very contemporary questions of what technology can and cannot do — what it should and should not do. Obviously, at the stage when computers express emotions and respond with actions that were not programmed to happen this way, they become a threat to humanity. But Hal’s life is attached to humans which is demonstrated by the fact that one of the last human beings Hal thinks of before dying is his/its first teacher, Dr. Chandra, who taught him the song Daisy Bell.
As I checked now, Daisy Bell was the first song that used computer speech synthesis as early as in 1961. And I am sure, if you want to do research on all the meanings of this song in the movie, just like all other mysterious and hidden meanings in the movie, you could write many Ph.D. theses which I am sure, people have done around the world. Funnily enough, in the German version of the movie, Hal sings “Hänschen Klein,” a famous children’s song. So, no matter what we believe in, if we have the privilege to get old, very old, and if we happen to lose our senses to dementia, we still have one promise to hold on to: We will go back to experiencing some days in our lives before any worries or ambitions ruled our lives — the time of childhood when all that mattered to us was how many candles were on our birthday cake and which song to sing.
Is that not a very comforting thought when thinking of our own retirement days?
1) How do you think about the future of intelligent machines? Do you expect them to be able to have human-like feelings?
2) Do you like science fiction movies or books? Why/not?
3) How do you prepare for the time when you get old?