Newmann: To be, or bot to be |

Newmann: To be, or bot to be

Back in the late 1960s, when dinosaurs had just exited the Earth and the word “technology” was found only in the name of several prominent engineering universities, a film called “2001: A Space Odyssey” arrived on the scene.

The premise of the film centered on a spaceship crew rocketing off to, of all places, Jupiter. There were a few human astronauts on board. But the star of the film was HAL, a computer that really ran the whole space flight.

HAL knew all the logistics of the trip, plotted the course of the ship and, most importantly, could chat with the crew about almost any matter imaginable. HAL could even read lips. Unfortunately, HAL went a bit rogue after, literally, having a breakdown.

As the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick, said, “Once you have a computer which is more intelligent than man and capable of learning by experience, it’s inevitable that it will develop an equivalent range of emotional reactions — fear, love, hate, envy. Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could, of course, have a nervous breakdown — as HAL did in the film.”

The film spurred a bit of controversy (“What if machines could actually take over from us folks?”). But, as with most controversies, the hubbub died down (“Oh, it ain’t going to happen. It’s just a movie.”). And the bulk of the cinema-goers settled down to watching Westerns again.

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Fast forward about 60 or so years and … hmmm.

HAL might be long gone. But his legacy remains. And is being updated on a daily basis by the modern-day HALs, all of whom are not science fiction.

Now we have real, live (in a manner of speaking) HALs. They can talk, listen (something that escapes many guys), make suggestions, enforce suggestions, run complex operations and probably even feed the cat. And their list of achievements will only grow. After all, they’re pretty smart cookies.

All of which makes one ponder: Where’s the end point? If these machines, these wonders of artificial intelligence, can start taking over human tasks … well, what will humans do? Will we have more leisure time? Can we go to baseball games where robot umpires call virtual balls and strikes? How about a lake vacation where bots drive the boat and do the fishing?

And what about business? Instead of “I’ll have my people call your people” will it be “I’ll have my bot talk with your bot.”

Will we end up having medical consultations with machines that diagnose every conceivable symptom of every known malady, have the bedside manner of Marcus Welby, and are able to perform complex surgeries in a few minutes?

Then there’s schoolwork. If a bot writes a paper for you and you turn it in as your own … well, can the bot nail you for plagiarism?

Who knows how far the whole bot thing will go? Maybe they’ll even become the captains — and the crew — of intergalactic travel in a few years. HAL would be proud of that achievement.

The irony is that human intelligence created artificial intelligence. And artificial intelligence could start to outpace human intelligence. So the very creators of the bots could end up … well, let’s not go there.

The good news is that, just as with HAL, if or when things start to get a little too weird, we still may have the ability to clip some of the wires.

At least for now.

Tom Newmann splits his time between Edwards and Queenstown, New Zealand. He has been going winter-to-winter since 1986. He was also a journalist in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoulian for quite a few years. Email him at

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