Thursday, February 9, 2012
2001: A Space Odyssey
The following passage is a response to a class discussion regarding the Youtube clip from 2001: A Space Odyssey:
I feel that Carr only referenced the self-sustaining computer, HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to instill fear in the reader. He opens the book with the notion that computers are evolving into dangerous machines that are capable of controlling us. Carr quotes HAL, “I can feel it. My mind is going,” as the astronaut is disabling the computer. Carr notes that his computer seems to have some sort of a stronghold on his life, but I feel this irrational for many reasons.
One of the first things you are taught in an introductory computer science course is that computers cannot make decisions. A computer is nothing more than a machine that can store and process data. That’s it. A computer does not have a mind of its own, and it certainly does not have the capacity to feel emotion.
A computer consists of multiple programs in which carry out tasks. The process to create a program is done in a linear way. Computer programmers develop algorithms, or a set of instructions, which are translated into high-level languages and then compiled by the machine. The process of compilation involves taking the code written by the programmer and translating it into machine language, which is the language the computer is able to read. Then, the computer generates a file that can be executed by the user.
If this sounds like gibberish, maybe this will help to clarify:
Computer programmers are the chefs of the cyber world. They write recipes, which are comparable to algorithms, for cooking a meal. For this example, we will say the chef is cooking baked chicken. The chef has to use the recipe to make the chicken; this is analogous to how a computer programmer uses an algorithm to write code. A recipe for baking chicken might include adding seasoning to the chicken and placing it in a pan with some water, whereas an algorithm for a program may contain the steps to solve a complicated math problem. The chef must bake the chicken so the seasoning can cook into it. In programming, this is equivalent to compilation, where the oven in the chef example is the compiler. A compiler “cooks” the code that is written and understood by the user and translates it into a language that the computer is able to read. Once the chicken is finished baking, it can be eaten. Once the code has been compiled, the program can be executed.
I wanted to take the time to explain how computers work to exploit why I feel that the message from 2001: A Space Odyssey is absurd. It is easy to be afraid of something that is unfamiliar and I can understand why many viewers were afraid of HAL. At the time of the movie’s release, many people felt that HAL was symbolic of the company IBM being that every letter to the right of each letter of HAL spells out IBM. At one point in the clip, HAL’s voice even seemed sarcastic, and that was downright frightening. However, we should not rely on Hollywood for knowledge because the movie industry tends to falsify things to achieve a sense of glamour, suspense, or drama. I am disappointed that Carr referenced 2001: A Space Odyssey to express that he feels computers are controlling him. The computer has no ability to reach out to its users in a domineering way. I did not approve that he started the book on such a negative note, especially since many readers may not be familiar with the anatomy and physiology of computers enough to know that computers such as HAL do not exist.