Tuesday, March 22, 2011

GERTY and HAL 9000

**Spoilers abound for both Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey**

It's pretty obvious to me that Jones had 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of his inspirations for Moon (luckily Wikipedia agrees with me on this one; parallels between HAL and GERTY include but are not limited to: the eye, the voice, the "I can't let you go outside, Sam"/"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"). And with that knowledge, the ending became even more poignant. In many ways, GERTY reflects a conception of AI that HAL also reflects. They both have programming, a mission, and something which seems to exist beyond those: emotion. In the movie version of 2001, it is not so clear that HAL really has human emotions, except for a few moments where HAL seems to speak with pride in its perfect operational record. In the novel, Clarke ventures deeper into HAL's subjectivity, and gives HAL a complex set of motivations and emotions that turn it into the most human character in the novel (in my opinion, at least). Back to the movie version of 2001: the ultimate confrontation in the narrative is not between Dave and the alien intelligence as represented in the monolith, but between the human intelligence in human form-Dave, and the human intelligence in computer form-HAL. Dave and HAL find themselves opposed to the point of death, as they feel that their mission is compromised by the other's existence. Dave wins this battle, in perhaps the saddest scene in the entire movie.

The entire sequence leading to HAL's death, with its efforts to persuade Dave not to kill it, Dave's slow removal of the vacuum tubes, HAL saying "I'm afraid", HAL's singing of "Daisy Bell"

Throughout the movie, HAL only interacts with the crew through its eye and through its voice. GERTY, on the other hand, has a convenient screen for expressing emotions. Though this screen should help establish GERTY as a more human character, I actually found this screen almost distracting as it was such a transparent effort to give GERTY a recognizable face.

Two images of GERTY, one of its crying face and one of its robotic arm reaching out to comfort Sam. Which seems more human?

It detracted from GERTY's actions, which on their own create a dynamic, conflicted character. It attempts to keep Sam (#2, I think, even though he seemed to be clone 6 in the movie; it's just more convenient to label the two Sams we see #1 and #2) inside the base, but then it turns around and saves Sam #1. It hides the live feed from the Sams, but then reveals to Sam #1 that he is a clone, one of many. It helps Sam #1 access the logs, and asks Sam #2 to effectively kill it because it will tell the ELIZA crew what happened. GERTY is obviously programmed by the LUNAR company (so many acronyms in all caps!), but has developed a sort of personality through the years of working with Sams on the base. It likes Sam, beyond its programming. (True, a computer should not develop things outside of its programming, but I suppose this is in a world where GERTY is a true artificial intelligence and can pass the Turing test easily.)

So it's depressing when the same opposition between human intelligence and artificial intelligence is played out between Sam #2 and GERTY. He kills it, as much as he would be dead if it had killed him. GERTY's personality, all the quirks it developed, all the attachments it made, are wiped out by the restart that GERTY asks Sam #2 to do. This reboot is practically the same thing as one Sam dying, only to be replaced with another one with the same initial memories and same start-up procedure. Yet that death is small and in the background, compared to Sam #2's journey to earth. Sam #2 doesn't feel that death in the same way he feels his own death, perhaps because he doesn't see the similarity between him and GERTY. Yet when he says, "We're not programmed. We're people. Understand?", perhaps he means "Sams and GERTYs" as much as he means "Sams".


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