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A Kinder, Gentler HAL Turns One

By Rob Mitchum // February 10, 2014

The most memorable character in both the book and film versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey is not a human, but a glowing red circle. HAL 9000, short for Heuristically-programmed ALgorithmic computer, steals the show as the eerily lifelike and powerful computer in charge of the Discovery One spacecraft, even before it (spoiler alert) tries to kill off the astronauts in its care. Those villainous actions might make HAL 9000 a strange inspiration for the CI’s new experimental makerspace, the Hack Arts Lab, which celebrated its first year of existence last week. But as Martha Roth, Dean of Humanities at the University of Chicago pointed out at the event, the two entities share more than just an acronym.

“The original HAL 9000 had a lot of interesting capabilities: facial recognition, lip reading…murder,” Roth said. “But it also was capable of deep art appreciation, you may recall, and I think that’s a very important element.”

Since it’s soft launch last spring, students, staff, and faculty have used HAL for a wide range of artistic and scientific exploration. Through courses such as Digital Imaging or Data and Algorithm in Art — both taught by HAL director and CI faculty and fellow Jason Salavon — students learned how to use the space’s high-tech equipment, including 3D printers and scanners, a laser etcher/cutter, digital workstations, and more cutting-edge devices.

“It’s a classic makerspace in that we’re oriented toward a certain amount of self-starting, a certain amount of autodidactic self-teaching,” Salavon said. “The ethos is to come in with an idea, and let’s all try to figure out ways to make it real.”

At the HAL celebration, some of those early projects were on display. A widescreen television equipped with a multi-touch screen allowed viewers to swipe and pinch-to-zoom like a giant tablet to manipulate a 360-degree view of an art installation by MFA student Mark Beasley. Two hacked Kinect devices scanned the room of chatting attendees and projected ghostly abstract forms on to the walls. The laser etcher created personalized business-card sized party favors with images of animals and the attendee’s name, while 3D printers and an automated milling machine produced detailed objects.

Housed at the Computation Institute’s Searle Chemical Laboratory space and staffed by the Reva & David Logan Center for the Arts, HAL creates a mixing bowl for the art, science, and computation communities on the University of Chicago campus. CI Director Ian Foster — who taught a Digital Fabrication course in the space with CI Senior Fellow Rick Stevens last year — said that Salavon’s vision offered a chance for the CI to expand its collaborative mission.

“The Computation Institute was established 10 years ago as a place to bring together people from different disciplines to create often complex software artifacts that can enable discovery,” Foster said. “Soon after Jason got here, he said ‘I want to create a place where we can bring people together to build things at a very physical level, not just at the level of having conversations.’ So I’ve been very pleased to see how this has turned out.”

Though some of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s visions for 2001 have yet to be realized even 13 years after the date, other technologies used by artists and scientists today surpass their vision of the future. As HAL’s hours expand and technology continues to evolve, even more ambitious projects will come to life behind its doors, turning some of fiction’s wildest dreams into reality.

“Among its capabilities are things that science fiction a half century ago could not conceive of: Digitizers, replicators, 3D printers,” Roth said. “Lord only knows what we’re going to have in another few years coming out of this entity itself, this incredible space and enterprise.”