2001: A Space Odyssey has a lot to say about sentience with its artificial intelligence, HAL, and its use of the song “Daisy Bell” speaks volumes.
There are many iconic moments in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the part of the movie that receives the most attention is the segment revolving around HAL, his malfunctions, and his final song, “Daisy.” HAL is the artificial intelligence system for the HAL 9000 computer that controls the Discovery One spacecraft, and he is generally considered a trusted member of the crew until he begins to malfunction. These glitches result in the deaths of multiple crew members and the decision to shut HAL down. In the latter moment, the sentient computer begs for its life.
2001 is typically considered the best sci-fi movie of all time. Despite its cultural importance, however, the film can be confusing for many viewers, as the visuals and character choices are generally left up to the audience’s interpretation. One such confusing moment is when HAL switches from pleading for his life to offering to sing a song, leaving audiences to wonder about the tune’s significance to the narrative and the movie’s message as a whole.
HAL Sings “Daisy” As He’s Being Taken Apart
Although Dave Bowman is forced to dismantle HAL after the system kills the rest of the crew, the “evil” artificial intelligence gains a brief moment of pity when he asks to sing “Daisy.” Up until he had begun malfunctioning, HAL was considered a friend to the humans aboard the Discovery One, with Dave’s co-pilot Frank Poole explaining, “He is just like a sixth member of the crew … he acts like he has genuine emotions.” In his last moments of consciousness, the dangerous and clearly manipulative villain of Kubrick’s 2001 uses the song to offer Dave one last glimpse of his “friend.”
The lack of background music in this scene emphasizes the terror of being alone in space with a murderous AI and the darkness of destroying a sentient creature. Dave doesn’t say a word as HAL asks him to stop and admits, in the same monotone it used while killing the crew, that it is afraid. When HAL asks to sing, Dave finally speaks: “Yes. I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.” Whether it’s intended as a distraction for HAL or Dave, the song functions as a last lullaby as the computer’s sentiency dies. The moment offers relief to Dave but also makes him essentially kill a friend.
The Song Is A Nod To Bell Labs
The use of the 1892 song “Daisy” — the full title of which is “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” — for the moment HAL begs for his life in 2001 is significant because it was the first song ever performed by a computer — specifically, the IBM 704. Arthur C. Clarke, the co-writer of 2001, personally experienced thar computer “sing” the song at Bell Labs in 1962. On a surface level, this moment functions as an homage to the early days of artificial intelligence, but it also poses an important question about sentiency and humanity.
HAL’s scheming and logic fade to simplicity as the computer regresses by 40 years, back to a time when computers were programmed to bring joy to those around them. The song takes HAL back to its childhood, and emphasizes that Dave is killing that child just as much as he is dismantling a malfunctioning computer system. Adding to the overall themes and interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL’s callback to an earlier system command suggests that evolution may be just as possible for computers as it is for humans, given a sufficient level of sentience.