This real-life supercomputer inspired HAL 9000, the evil AI from '2001: A Space Odyssey'

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In the 1970s, Moffett Federal Airfield, a government-operated military base that served as a test-bed for new technologies, had a high-security underground bunker. To enter, employees would have to walk through concrete hallways, past eerie metal doors and some guards. Inside, it was cold; the AC was always cranking.

"It was straight out of 007 — Dr. Evil kind of stuff," recalls Francis Jeffrey, who worked there at the time as an engineer.

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This subterranean lab was home to one of the world's first supercomputers, the ILLIAC. Short for Illinois Automatic Computer, it could analyze radar patterns, the effects of atomic blasts, the stability of materials used in construction, and even the composition of music. This was also the computer that inspired the Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic computer, more commonly known as HAL, in Arthur C. Clarke's 1968 sci-fi thriller 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Conceived at the University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign in the 50s and 60s, the room-sized behemoth was the most powerful number-crunching machine of its time. But it represented more than that. For the scientists that developed it, ILLIAC was a first step toward computers that could rival human intelligence. That possibility intrigued Clarke, said Jeffrey, who'd later work with Clarke on various projects, including computer-assisted human-dolphin communications.

Clarke, according to Jeffrey, had been fascinated with computers since the '40s when he'd met Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, the place where Turing developed "The Bombe"—the machine that cracked the German navy's Enigma machine encryption, helping the Allies win the war. (Turing's other claim to fame, of course, is the Turing Test, which poses the question: can a computer fool a person into thinking it’s human?) Clarke's interactions with Turing, paired with what he learned the Illinois engineers were building, says Jeffrey, is what helped the artificially intelligent HAL start to take shape in the author's imagination.

Francis Jeffrey, Janine Gonsenhauser and Arthur C. Clarke, in
his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 2000. Photo courtesy of Francis Jeffrey.
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His futuristic vision of the future, which was very much rooted in what scientists were thinking about artificial intelligence, is something we're still grappling with today. What happens when the programs we build to help us turn on us? The question of ethics in AI has come to the forefront in recent months. There's a whole new movie, Ex Machina, which opened in select cities April 10 and widely this weekend, that brings to mind some of the same questions 2001 did in the 60s. If an AI goes rogue, could we stop it?

Clarke seemed to think so. At the end of 2001,  Dave shut down HAL. And as the murderous machine starts to fade, it recalls how it was "born." It was first turned on in 1997 at Urbana-Champaign, a tie-in to its real-life roots. The message is clear: at its beginning and its end, humans were always at the helm.

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Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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