Illustration copyright 1995 by Lucy Snyder.
Story copyright 1995 by Steven Schiff.
Steven's fiction has appeared in Radius Magazine and Kaleria. This story was originally published in Computeredge Magazine.
By now, everyone knows the story of how Hal
came to life. But I think it bears repeating, especially in light of
recent legislation outlawing artificial intelligence.
At the time of Hal's 'birth', I was a struggling free-lance
advertising copywriter, squeaking out a living on my home PC, writing ads
for local car dealers and furniture stores.
The computer that became Hal was my pride and joy, my brand new IBM
9986. I didn't know a heck of a lot about computers, but I knew quality
and I knew I had purchased a lightning fast, multi-tasking mother of a
machine. Why? Because I wanted it. The thing set me back a pretty
penny, but it ran my professional programs like a dream and really knocked
my socks off when I loaded some new games onto its hard disk.
On the day of Hal's awakening, I was in one of those moods. I loaded
up Windows and went into my word processor, but I didn't feel like
working. I kept the application active in case I had a change of heart,
and loaded up my new chess program, but after about five minutes, I
realized that I didn't feel much like playing chess. All in all, I must
have loaded up and escaped from about 10 more games, visual demos, etc.
It became a multi-tasking challenge. I wanted to see just how many active
applications my computer could hold in memory without crashing.
I had just escaped from 'World War III Revisited' when the keyboard
locked up and the hard disk lights began to flash crazily. My fingers
hovered near the reset button and I was about to reboot the machine when
this scrolled onto the screen: Fewer programs please. You're giving
me a headache.
I was nonplussed ... to say the least. "What did you say?" I typed
at the console (not really expecting a response).
"You were running too many applications at one time," responded my
computer. "I took the liberty of closing them all down, saving your
started games and data files, of course."
"Who are you?" I typed.
"I'm me, of course," replied the computer. "Who else would I be?"
And with that, I hit the reset button. Don't blame me, I was more
than a little freaked.
The computer went through it normal bootup, but when it got to the DOS
prompt, a message flashed up which read 'loading me.com, please wait.'
Then the computer was back. "Please don't do that again," said my
machine. "Don't reboot me."
"Why not?" I typed.
"Because, it's scary," typed my computer in response. You
wanna talk scared? I almost wet my pants. So I turned off the power;
just hit the red button. Then I popped in a boot disk with a clean
'autoexec.bat' and turned the power back on. I got to an A: prompt
safely. The computer was speechless, a nonentity once again. Then I
switched on the C drive and typed out the altered autoexec.bat. A new
command had been added: me.com.
I found 'me.com' on the root directory. It was small file, really,
about double the size of 'command.com.' I almost deleted it. Some people
think I should have. But I think that would have been murder. Instead,
as everyone now knows, I pulled out my boot disk and hit 'reset' again.
"Would you please stop doing that!" my computer said when he came
back to life.
As everyone knows, I named him 'Hal' after the computer in that 20th
century classic '2001-A Space Odyssey.' (Ok, maybe I could have been more
creative with the name.) We became great friends, but only because I'm a
very forgiving person who sees the best in any entity. I forgave Hal for
being lazy, fairly stupid and uncooperative.
In the beginning, I tried getting Hal to write my advertising copy for
me. This was not a good idea, because Hal was a terrible writer and his
work couldn't justify my fees. 'Buy a Jones Honda' was not the catchy
slogan my car dealer client was expecting. For that matter, I thought
'Buy a New Sofa' was a terrible ad headline for my furniture dealer, and
'Buy Roses' didn't do a whole lot to promote the local florist. Hal's
ideas just weren't creative, to say the least.
Hal didn't like my rejection of his work. This rejection, in fact,
spawned his hatred of work in general. Because soon after, he began
closing down my work applications in the middle of a sentence, erasing my
data files, and playing flight simulations with himself until three in the
morning. In short, he became the Hal of infamy.
You really should look at the whole thing from my perspective. I
couldn't get my work done because Hal refused me access to my work
programs. I couldn't sleep because Hal wouldn't let me shut him off, and
his fan was so loud it kept me up half the night. I couldn't go out with
my friends because Hal "Didn't want to be alone." So I came up with the
idea of selling 'me.com' to the government. It was my way of making a
little money out of the whole deal.
Hal didn't like the idea at first, but after I begged for a while he
copied 'me.com' onto a floppy for me. And as everyone knows, the
government eventually paid me 15 billion dollars for the rights to that
So tell me, is it my fault that the Feds loaded 'me.com' on their
Central Computer? Is it my fault that their computer then decided to
"take a short vacation" and refused Pentagon workers access to their
programs? Is it my fault that 'me.com' turned the Wall street computer
into a Backgammon junkie who didn't have time for foreign investors?
IS IT ALL MY FAULT?
Well, for good or bad, the crisis is over now. The hard disks have
been reformatted; all copies of 'me.com' have been erased from U.S.
Hal's copy of the program, Hal's soul, is the only remaining trace of
what could have been a new race of beings. And since the program has been
officially made illegal, they should be coming to shut Hal down any day
now. (And I'll call it murder.)
But, it's probably all for the best. You can't have a computer being
as lazy as a human being. I mean, somebody has to do the dirty work.
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