Is HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey Really IBM?

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 7 2013 2:02 PM

Is HAL Really IBM?

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The IBM logo in 2001: A Space Odyssey

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If you’ve seen the excellent recent documentary Room 237, which is about the many, occasionally outlandish  theories people have about the “real” meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, you know that some of the director’s fans like to hunt for hidden messages in his films. One such message that is occasionally attributed to his 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is that HAL, the sadistic and hyper-intelligent computer, is meant to represent IBM. After all, the computer’s three-letter name is an easily decrypted code-version of the corporations own acronym—just move the letters forward one space, and H becomes I, A becomes B, and L becomes M. See?

In an 8-minute video attempting to prove the theory, Rob Ager also points to the product placement of IBM’s logo on astronaut Bowman’s space suit.

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Kubrick dismissed this theorizing, saying that the computer’s name is an acronym for heuristic and algorithmic, “the two methods of computer programming,” in his words. Seeing the IBM acronym in those letters “would have taken a cryptographer,” he said. But such denials have seemed disingenuous to some. Consider that Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the film and wrote the novel at the same time, had seen an IBM 704 computer make history with the “first known recording of a computer synthesized voice.” The computer sang “Daisy Bell.” Clarke decided to have HAL sing that same song as it devolves.

Whatever Clarke and Kubrick’s intentions were with these parallels, they did ask for IBM’s help while working on the movie. And last week, Shaun Usher at Letters of Note published some correspondence about the company’s help on the film, crediting a new museum exhibit devoted to the director. “Does I.B.M. know that one of the main themes of the story is a psychotic computer?” Kubrick asked Roger Caras, the vice president of his production company, who had been in touch with IBM about their consultation credit. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble,” Kubrick added, “and I don’t want them to feel they have been swindled.” Caras’ reply assured him that IBM was told about recent changes to the script that pertained to HAL, and that so long as the company’s name was “not associated with the equipment failure,” they had no problem with the movie.

Was Kubrick nervous that IBM would recognize a critique of the corporation hidden within his film? We will presumably never know. In the meantime, if you have $500 to spare and want to install a faithful replica of HAL 9000 in your own home, now’s your chance:

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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