The HAL 9000 explanation: “It can only be attributable to human error”

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is a problem aboard Discovery One. The HAL 9000 computer, artificial intelligence which can talk and mimic the human brain, announces a problem.

HAL: “I’ve just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It’s going to go 100% failure in 72 hours.”

The AE-35 unit is a gyroscopic device used to maintain the communications link between with mission control by keeping the satellite dish antenna aligned with Earth.

Dr David Bowman goes outside the ship in a spherical Extravehicular Activity (EVA) pod to retrieve and replace the malfunctioning unit, and returned to the pod bay, where he and Dr Frank Poole carry out extensive diagnostics. They can’t find any defects. The pair radio Mission Control in Houston. Mission Control says that HAL, the supposedly “foolproof and incapable of error” 9000 computer may have made an error. Their SAL 9000 unit, the twin to the one aboard Discovery One, finds no flaw in the AE-35.

HAL, who cannot self-diagnose problems in his own system, provides an explanation, and an explanation that plays out in most system failures here on planet earth in 2013.

Dave: How would you account for this discrepancy between you and the twin 9000?
HAL: Well, I don’t think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error. This sort of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error.
Frank: Listen HAL. There has never been any instance at all of a computer error occurring in the 9000 series, has there?
HAL: None whatsoever, Frank. The 9000 series has a perfect operational record.
Frank: Well of course I know all the wonderful achievements of the 9000 series, but, uh, are you certain there has never been any case of even the most insignificant computer error?
HAL: None whatsoever, Frank. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t worry myself about that.

HAL can be seen as a metaphor for those organisations and societies that cannot admit their flaws, and instead revert to the “human error” explanation for what may be weak signals of systemic problems. In the worst cases, like HAL, such organisations and societies conspire against and condemn the accused, fearful that their own flaws may be exposed.

When you hear the ‘HAL 9000 explanation’ for system problems, as Sidney Dekker says, look deeper inside the system. But be careful that the system doesn’t lock you out.

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems, and Honorary Clinical Tutor at the University of Edinburgh. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

6 thoughts

  1. The typo in the film name in the very first sentence (“2001: A Spade Odyssey”) can only be attributable to human error. 🙂

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