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Scientists, fans mark HAL's birthday

Professor Marvin Minsky, meet Mark Lucas. You both played a major role in celebrating HAL's birthday on January 12.

Professor Minsky, who was the scientific expert on the set of the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, entertained an overflow IAP crowd celebrating HAL's birth at the Tang Center's Wong Auditorium. Mr. Lucas, pastry chef at Creative Gourmet in Allston, baked the cake.

Dr. Minsky, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, was the final speaker on a panel that included David G. Stork, editor of the new book HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality (MIT Press, 1997); Murray S. Campbell, research scientist for IBM who worked with the Deep Blue computer chess team, and Rosalind W. Picard, associate professor of media technology at the Media Laboratory.

Mr. Stork, an MIT alumnus (SB '76) who is chief research scientist at the Ricoh Research Center in California, addressed the question of the various years recorded for HAL's birth.

In Arthur C. Clarke's novel, HAL says, "I became operational. In Urbana, Illinois, on January 12, 1997." In the movie, director Stanley Kubrick made HAL five years older. According to Stork, the script said it took place in 1991.

Without question, Mr. Stork said, logic dictates that it happened in 1997. "Who would want to use a nine-year-old computer on a space mission?" he wondered, before adding, with perfect show biz timing, "Maybe NASA, I'm afraid."

Mr. Stork played a recording that author Clarke heard at Bell Laboratories in 1962 of an ILLIAC computer singing "Daisy," which HAL sings in the movie (the voice was Canadian Shakespearean actor Douglass Rain). "It's amazing," Mr. Stork said. "In the film, it's sung in the same key."

Mr. Campbell, who showed clips of Deep Blue playing chess against Russian world champion Gary Kasparov last year, noted that HAL played chess "in the human style" in the movie, meaning he reacted with intelligence.

Noting that HAL was "the most emotional character in the film," Professor Picard cited his dying words: "I can feel it. I'm afraid."

Professor Minsky said that three factors differentiate human and artificial intelligence: common sense, short-term memory and emotions. "No computer is as smart as the average 4-year-old child in putting things together," he said.

After the panel discussion (and before viewing the movie), the crowd was invited to enjoy a slice of the white butter cream birthday cake, decorated with a confectionery image of HAL's all-seeing lens. Mr. Lucas, 32, created the cake ornament from a photograph and an oral description by Bob Prior of the MIT Press Bookstore. Mr. Lucas has never seen the movie or read the book.

"This definitely piqued my interest," he said. "I'd like to learn more about it now."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 15, 1997.

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