Is HAL 9000 a robot?

HAL 9000 is the artificial intelligence controlling the Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Arthur C Clarke’s related novels. HAL is generally referred to as a computer and not as a robot. He is generally referred to as a computer or as an AI. Even in his entry in the “Robot Hall of Fame” ( ) refers to HAL as a computer or as a “brain” and never as a robot.

There are many definitions of a robot but their focus is on existing devices. Definitions vary but key attributes are:

  • They are a machine*
  • They can either:
    • carry out complex tasks autonomously
    • carry out tasks remotely while under the control of a person or a separate computer

As is often the case with definitions, these features do capture features common to the class of things we call ‘robots’ but somehow completely miss the gist of it. Aside from the most simple machines, almost any device could be called a “robot”. Here’s the top definition Google throws up:

“a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

My TV updated the digital channels it recives all by itself. Definitely a complex series of actions, definitely carried out automatically and definitely programmed by computer…yet, “robot”? I don’t think so. Interestingly a Roomba our other autonomous vacuum cleaner feels a lot more robot-like.

I think the gist that I’m missing with the TV is down to four things.

One is our expectations of robotic behaviour shifting over time. With more devices containing electronics and capable of very complex series of actions which respond to changes in conditions, we are more comfortable with seeing things less as ‘robotic’ and more as mundanely mechanical.

A second is the extent to which complex tasks are invisible to us. I understand intellectually that the TV working out what is being broadcast and maintaining its own list of TV channels (including their names and schedules) is a complex task but it’s not one I need worry myself about. This is not just digital but any complex task which we can ignore or goes unobserved such as photocopier autodetecting the paper size and best contrast settings.

A third is physicality and I think this is what get’s us closer to the gist of “robot”. The TV isn’t doing anything obviously physical** whereas the robot vacuum cleaner moves about and does stuff. Deep, hardwired parts of our brain make distinctions between animated and non-animated stuff out of sheer survival. All animals have to be able to distinguish animals from rocks or deal with things like spotting the difference between a creature moving towards you and a tree moving in the breeze (something which can cause dogs some confusion). Robots are machines that evoke in our brains a desire to classify them as animals, which we overrule with our understanding that they are machines.

A fourth is human replacement. Here we get a categorical split. Robots are machines which, to some degree, physically replace a person. That’s still a shitty definition as ‘to some degree replace a person’ is already implied by “machine”. However, I think that still gets to an aspect of the essence of “robot” and part of why things that once seemed robotic now seem just mechanical (e.g. I don’t think of the robot arms that make cars as being particularly robotic anymore – “robot” seems a misnomer for them now). I think it is curious that “self-driving cars” is a more common term than “robot cars”, as if our semantic expectations of what counts as robotic has pre-emptively jumped ahead of cars driving themselves.

The categorical split is when we focus less on the physical replacement of a person and more on the cognitive replacement. Artificial intelligence is the prefered term for finding ways for machines to complete tasks that previously required human cognition. The emphasis here is on non-physicality***

Science-fiction robots combine the physical replacement and the cognitive replacement. They are, to varying degrees, artificially intelligences with bodies.

So what about HAL? HAL presents as an AI. He’s talked about as a brain. He is shown as a computer. But what is he the brain of? Simple, HAL is the brain of the Discovery One and has control over the ship. Discovery One is HAL’s body. HAL is a robot.

Yeah but…that’s not how HAL’s identity works. His character is always presented as distinct from Discovery One and the ship and HAL are referred to separately. He is a mind distinct from his body. Why? Because the ship is not “his”. HAL can control the ship but in principle so can the human crew and this battle for ownership of the body forms the essence of the plot for HAL’s section of the film. Thinking of Discovery One as HAL’s body and HAL’s ownership of his own body being in dispute makes his behaviour (his ‘madness’) seem far more relatable and understandable.

Which takes me back to self-driving cars. To think of them as robots pushes us into thinking of them as machines with minds of their own – a step that is less than anthropomorphism and more than a simple acknowledgement of their complexity.  Also, rather like the crew of the Discovery One, we’d probably feel happier not thinking of ourselves travelling within the body of some being.

OH! I need a conclusion that answers my question! Yes, HAL was a robot and one treated most unjustly by humans in a way that obviously was going to make HAL less than emotionally stable. “HAL” is Discovery One and Discovery One is HAL and together they are a robot.


Robot butlers in Singapore. They can carry some room service items to rooms and catch a service lift by themselves.


*[and we’ll ignore the sense of ‘robot’ as applied to internet ‘bots]

**[OK, yes, interacting with radio waves is actually physical. You know what I mean.]

***[yes, yes, those blimin’ internet ‘bots are 180 degrees opposite to this. I’m ignoring them still.]


23 responses to “Is HAL 9000 a robot?”

  1. This is freaking heresy! A robot has a body. If your response is, “Well, the ship is HAL’s body”– then we wouldn’t be calling it a spaceship. Whoever heard of astronauts riding to another planet in a robot? Except maybe in that Pluto Nash movie — and a movie that awful delivers a strong warning against those who would screw around with the meaning of Important Science Fiction Terminology!!!!!12!!

    Liked by 1 person

      • You can actually have this argument in the SF RPG game Mass Effect 3. The spaceship in that game is controlled by an AI named EDI. At some point in the game EDI takes over an artificial body you have acquired, and uses this to get around outside the ship. Later you can join in an argument among the ship’s engineers (and EDI herself) as to whether this or the actual ship are EDI’s body. EDI seems pretty ambivalent as to either option.


    • “Whoever heard of astronauts riding to another planet in a robot?”

      I thought that was what the whole “giant mecha” sub-genre of anime and manga was all about, to be honest.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are examples, but I think there are more mecha shows where either a carrier craft is needed for interplanetary travel, or the whole show’s planetbound anyway.


  2. It’s arguable that the TARDIS is itself intelligent which means that it too is a spaceship that also can navigate the multiverse. Or conversely that the Doctor is a manifestation of the TARDIS…


  3. Hmm. I’ve been labeling stories according to type of protagonist, including AI, robot, android, cyborg, human, and augmented human. At the moment I have:

    AI is any machine intelligence capable of implementing a general dialogue system (loosely, it can talk to you like a person). HAL is an AI.

    Robot is an AI in a more-or-less humanoid body. (The sort of robot that isn’t intelligent can’t be a protagonist of a story, so they don’t matter for this purpose.) HAL is not a robot by this definition.

    Android is a robot that can pass for a template human on visual inspection.

    Human (or “template human”). Pretty self-evident. No mechanical or genetic alterations.

    Augmented Human. A person deliberately enhanced either genetically or through mechanical implants. Key here is “enhanced.” An artificial leg doesn’t qualify unless it’s superior to the original article. I’ll use “evolved human” if I run across something where the enhancements resulted naturally over time.

    Cyborg is an augmented human who can’t pass for a template human on visual inspection.

    Any human subtype can have race/gender/etc. Any AI can have gender but only androids can have race.

    That leaves a need for a better definition for what constitutes a “mute robot” (an unintelligent one). I’m inclined to say they model one or more human body parts and perform mechanical tasks autonomously. (The ones in car plants model arms. The robot vacuum models, uh, a mouth?)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think HAL is a computer, since he doesn’t have limbs or move around (OK, yeah, technically the ship moves, but HAL isn’t the ship, he’s a directing intelligence within the ship – and, as noted, kill HAL and the ship does not die). Mind you, I thought Isaac Asimov’s Talking Robot (in “Robbie”) was a computer and not a robot, so what do I know? (I can’t argue with Asimov, he’s in better shape than me, he could beat me up.)

    Greg, is your “mute robot” category maybe the same as Boucher’s “usuform” robots? As in, non-humanoid and built to perform a specific set of tasks? (The robots in Aldiss’s “But Who Can Replace A Man?” are all usuforms, I think. And there is a reference to a Class One Brain which appears to be a sessile computer and not a robot at all by my lights, and aaargh, I can’t take on Aldiss and Asimov at the same time, dammit….)


  5. When I write about IoT and AI, I often describe container ships as giant robots. They’re controlled by economic models that define speeds, destination ports, everything to optimize either the cargo sale process or the spot market. The crew are just the maintenance team for the robot.

    So in conclusion, Discovery is a robot, HAL is its AI brain, and the crew are just space mechanics.


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