I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That

Dilemmas for technology in one of Clarke’s classics.  Published by Granada Publishing 1983.  Cover art by Michael Whelan

Dilemmas for technology in one of Clarke’s classics. Published by Granada Publishing 1983. Cover art by Michael Whelan

The centenary of Sir Arthur C Clarke’s birth is an appropriate time to reflect on the enormous impact which his work has had not only on the world of science fiction, but also on the wider scope of space exploration. We devote the latest issue of Odyssey, which has just been issued, to this subject.

It has often been said that Clarke did not concentrate primarily – perhaps sometimes only minimally – on the people who appeared in his stories. In his contribution to the 2013 book Arthur C Clarke: A Life Remembered, the science fiction author Robert L Sawyer observed that characters “were never Clarke’s main concern” – his focus was not on individual human beings, but on humanity as a whole. He took a genuinely global, indeed cosmic, view of the human race and its place in the universe.

There may be truth in that. Individual human beings from Clarke’s stories do not stand out in the memory. But there is one major exception that will surely be recalled in the annals of science fiction long after anyone reading this post today is no more – HAL 9000, who first appeared so memorably in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Clarke’s accompanying novel of the same name.

Just in case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know who HAL was, he was an advanced artificial intelligence who effectively controlled the spacecraft Discovery on its long distance mission – to the distress of every human astronaut on board. In that phrase uttered by HAL in the film, “I’m afraid I can’t do that”, our view of how our robots and computers might serve us in future was changed.

In The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, first published in 1977, various science fiction authors provided thoughtful introductions to the separate themes of the book, with Clarke introducing the section on ‘Computers and Cybernetics’. He traces the history of thinking machines in fiction, leading to the idea that they don’t have to be “out to destroy their creators, and usually succeeding” and ultimately to the protocols of Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ to protect human beings.

Of course, HAL’s mutiny seemed to breach this requirement quite dramatically but, as Clarke points out, sadly “the world’s most sophisticated robots have been designed for the express purpose of killing people.” He suspected that the first generation of real thinking machines would mirror the emotions of their builders – they might love, but they might equally be programmed to hate.

However, the reason behind HAL’s actions was considered further in Clarke’s 1982 sequel 2010: Odyssey Two. As an artificial intelligence, HAL suffered a form of paranoia when his instructions to keep the true nature of the mission secret conflicted with his inbuilt command that he must obey the orders of human beings. By analogy we, the human race, caused the crisis in our technology, leading to our own demise. As so often, any technology is only as good as what you tell it to do.

In his 2015 lecture to the BIS 2001: An Odyssey Revisited, Piers Bizony, having previously suggested how HAL seems, to some extent, more human in his enthusiasm for the mission than the astronauts themselves, considered the message of the outcome. He referred to the memorable scene where a primitive hominid throws a bone, which seems to transform into a spaceship, thereby capturing the idea of mankind’s progress towards space flight. But if we are to regain our “ape” humanity, we must destroy the “bone”, which is what astronaut Dave Bowman does to HAL in the end.

And as Piers points out, are we not seeing our humanity being reduced by technology in everyday life all the time? What is quite possibly Clarke’s most well-known character might be seen as a warning for us all. The advance of technology is good, but must be treated with caution.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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