Straight, Gay, or Binary?: HAL Comes Out of the Cybernetic ClosetS

In this essay from his new collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, cultural critic Mark Dery contemplates the sexual orientation of one of science fiction's most memorable machines: HAL, from 2001.

Now it can be told: HAL, the psychotic supercomputer in the sci-fi classic 2001, failed the Turing Test. Not Alan Turing's classic blindfold test for artificial intelligence, which the ultra-intelligent machine could pass "with ease" as Arthur C. Clarke notes in the novel on which Stanley Kubrick based his movie, but the test that Turing himself failed (albeit deliberately): that of passing for straight.

Turing was a British mathematician who helped create history's first working electronic digital computer, Colossus, and whose 1936 vision of a "universal" computing machine made the PC possible. He was also a publicly exposed (though wholly unrepentant) homosexual in Fifties England, where homosexuality was an illegal "gross indecency," viewed with undisguised loathing by straight society. His suicide by poisoned apple in 1954 may have been prompted by the growingly repressive climate of Cold War England, where "perverts" were purged from sensitive research positions in the name of national security. Having been convicted in 1952 of "gross indecency" with another man and sentenced to the then-voguish therapy of estrogen treatment as a form of "chemical castration" (female hormones were believed to suppress the male sex drive), Turing was in danger of being swept up in the rush to judgment. The coroner ruled that his death was a suicide "while the balance of his mind was disturbed."

HAL is Turing's brainchild. The mathematician is given pride of place in Clarke's account of HAL's birth; the scene in the movie where HAL beats astronaut Frank Poole at chess can be seen as a nod to Turing's "Turochamp," the first chess program; even the novel's title seems to allude to Turing, presuming his 1950 prediction that machines would convincingly simulate human thought within 50 years.

More profoundly, HAL, like his creator, is "disturbed," pushed over the edge by what Clarke calls "unconscious feelings of guilt" and the cognitive dissonance of "living a lie." Nominally, the lie in question is the cover story concealing the top-secret truth of his spacecraft's mission from the astronauts Poole and Bowman, but the subtextual echoes of Clarke's pop-psych catchphrases, familiar from tabloid coverage of the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, cannot be ignored. As well, HAL is destroyed by the very "logic of the planners" that led Turing into the covert world of classified research and ultimately conspired against him—the Machiavellian stratagems of bureaucrats whose "twin gods," says Clarke, are "Security and National Interest." And the paradox that ultimately unhinges HAL—"the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth"—is not unlike the dilemma faced by Turing, whose single-minded scientist's devotion to the Truth complicated the sexual and political "imitation game" (his term for the Turing Test) he was forced to play.

Following the trail of clues, from Clarke's unconscious use of suggestive catchphrases to the uncanny correlations between Turing's life story and that of his famous offspring, we find ourselves drawn into the queer-theory equivalent of the "transdimensional duct" that swallows Bowman near the novel's climax—a Gravity Well of Loneliness, so to speak, that catapults us "beyond the infinite," bringing us face to face with the question that haunts 2001 like a portentous monolith: Was HAL gay?

Historically, expert speculation on the subject of AI has confined itself to seemingly weightier matters: What is the state of the art in computer lip-reading, chess-playing, and speech synthesis? Most importantly, why does the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence, a thinking machine of human equivalence, remain so elusive?

But the universal silence on the sexuality of smart machines is more than the reflexive dismissal of the subject as unworthy of serious consideration; there's a historical logic at work, here. Traditionally, computer scientists and other AI types (codeword: nerd) have preferred the seductions of the interface to the sticky business of the world, the flesh, and the devil. "Computing was more important than getting involved in a romantic relationship," writes Steven Levy, in Hackers. "Hacking had replaced sex in their lives."

Moreover, techie round tables on the feasibility of a science-fiction supercomputer are particularly inimical to psychosexual analyses, given SF's traditional sublimation of sex, reproduction, and bodily fluids—in short, the flesh and the feminine. "Human biological sexuality and women as figures of its representation have been repressed in the male-dominated, action-oriented narratives of most American science fiction films from the 1950s to the present," argues Vivian Sobchack, in her essay "The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film."

This is especially true of the male-dominated (though hardly action-oriented) 2001. In the movie, the few female characters who flit through the novel have lost even their chauvinist, neo-colonial charm: Clarke's "charming little stewardess" from the "largely unspoiled" island of Bali, who entertains Dr. Floyd with some zero-gravity dance steps during his flight to the moon, is reimagined by Kubrick as a weirdly sexless creature in a white uniform and bulbous cap that gives her a distinctly brachycephalic look, somewhere between an overgrown fungal spore and one of the walking, talking sperm in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex by Woody Allen.

Straight, Gay, or Binary?: HAL Comes Out of the Cybernetic ClosetS

Still, the repressed has a nasty way of returning. If HAL could cry digital tears, as the AI theorist Rosalind Picard speculates in Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality, wouldn't he also be capable of sexual arousal? Although her inquiry into machine emotion leads her to conclude that "emotion appears to be a necessary component of intelligent, friendly computers like HAL," noting that "too little emotion wreaks havoc on reasoning," Picard gives love a wide berth (many researchers don't consider it a "basic" emotion, she says) and studiously avoids any mention of sexual desire, save for a passing remark about the slipperiness of a concept like "lust."

This is a notable sin of omission, since the question is less laughable than it sounds. Turing believed that a true thinking machine would be a feeling machine, too—a computer with a sex drive as well as a hard drive. In a 1951 radio broadcast, he epater'd the bourgeoisie by declaring that a machine that thinks would be capable of being "influenced by sex appeal." It seems only likely that an ultra-intelligent computer like HAL would, as Sir Geoffrey Jefferson put it in a lecture Turing was fond of quoting, "be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, [and] be charmed by sex."

As for the question of HAL's sexual preference, it seems significant, somehow, that the modern chapter of cybernetic smartness—Turing's 1950 essay, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence"—opens with a tongue-in-cheek bit of gender-bending, dreamed up by a gay man. Although the scenario commonly known as the Turing Test is usually envisioned as a human interrogator in a room with two terminals, one connected to a computer, the other to a human, attempting to determine by sending and receiving messages which of the unseen conversationalists is a machine, Turing's original "imitation game" involved an isolated interrogator trying to decide, through written communications, which of two people in another room was male and which was female. Intriguingly, the woman is instructed to tell the truth and the man to lie, which means that he has to engage in a sort of electronic transvestism, or MorFing, as on-line crossdressing is known ("MorF" = "Male or Female").

Turing writes, "We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of [the man] in this game?," reformulating the question of gender identity as one of machine intelligence. As the cultural critic Hillel Schwartz points out in The Culture of the Copy, "Turing reframed the debate about the limits of mechanism in terms of the limits of our ability to see through social simulation. Without surgery but from close-up, onstage or at a party, a woman can pass as a man, a man as a woman. What we think we know about maleness and femaleness is a social knowledge." And so, by extension, is what we think we know about human intelligence or, alternatively, hetero- and homosexuality.

There's something queer about Turing's Universal Machine itself, in the Sontagian sense of queerness as inextricably intertwined with an understanding of life as artifice. An abstract engine capable of simulating any other device whose operations could be reduced to readable code, it was designed "to do anything conventional, anything for which the rules were laid down," writes Turing biographer Andrew Hodges. The machine inherits the everyday politics of its inventor, who hacked together a passably straight personae out of generic social code—athleticism, "emotional reserve," and a Spartan insistence on what Hodges calls "professional ‘thinking' before off-duty ‘feeling'"—as part of a "resolve not to be ‘soft,'" the time-honored codeword for queer.

The Turing Test, it must be remembered, in no way proves that a machine is actually thinking, merely that its simulation of thought is sufficient for it to "pass" as human. As Turing rather archly—and tellingly—observed, there is no way of telling that other humans are "thinking" in any objective sense. We acknowledge culturally accepted signs as evidence of internal processes, and it seems only logical to apply the same standards to inorganic intelligence. In Turing's world-view (universally embraced by contemporary AI researchers from MIT's Rodney Brooks to Carnegie-Mellon's Hans Moravec), passing is everything; the "imitation game" is the only game in town.

"Alan Turing never confused simulation with duplication," writes Schwartz. "Machine intelligence, Turing knew, would always be virtual—but that should be enough to unpeg our arrogance." Given historical visions of gays as male impersonators and computers as human surrogates, there's an implicit parallel, here, between the mounting anxiety provoked by cybernetic challenges to human superiority—Deep Blue's conquest of the world chess champion Garry Kasparov, for instance—and the vague uneasiness, in the straight mainstream, inspired by the disquieting knowledge that the world is no longer hetero until proven guilty. The normative world-view is being unpegged at both the heterosexist and anthropocentrist levels, a revelation brought home by the familiar gay reminder that "we're on your police forces, we're in your churches," and so forth, and by the "bots" already fooling unsuspecting participants in on-line chats—simulators like the ELIZA program that strikes up conversations with come-ons like "Do you want to sleep with me, or what?" (Here, at least, artificial intelligence and the silicon libido seem to be developing in tandem, as Turing predicted.)

Obviously, none of these free associations, from Clarke's unconscious use of suggestive catchphrases like "living a lie," to Turing's own homosexuality, to the Turing Test's subtext of "passing," to the arguable "queerness" of the Universal Machine itself, constitutes proof positive that HAL is gay. Nonetheless, what little we know of HAL's nature and nurture, together with the cat's-cradle of coincidences interweaving the secret lives of Alan Turing and his famous offspring, argues convincingly in that direction.

First, there's HAL's voice, provided by the Shakespearean actor Douglas Rain. Kubrick biographer Vincent LoBrutto notes that the director was pleased with the "patronizing, asexual quality" Rain gave HAL, but one man's condescension is another man's cattiness; balanced on the knife edge between snide and anodyne, HAL's sibilant tone and use of feline phrases like "quite honestly, I wouldn't worry myself about that" contain more than a hint of the stereotypic bitchy homosexual. Clarke himself has acknowledged that HAL's voice betrays "a certain ambiguity," sexually.

Moreover, if the man's, man's, man's world of the movie and the novel are any indication, HAL was presumably raised by men and, like Turing, schooled in an all-male environment. That all-male environments are hotbeds of sublimated sexuality, haunted by the threat of same-sex love, is news to no one; English boarding schools such as Turing's, where "contact between the boys was fraught with sexual potential" (Hodges), have long been the, er, butt of locker-room one-liners.

Then, too, there's the starship Discovery's two-year mission, in 2001, to explore strange new worlds with an all-male crew. As Clarke coyly notes, all of the astronauts' needs have been anticipated: the ship's pharmacopoeia is stocked with "adequate, though hardly glamorous, substitutes" for sex—Sleeper's Orgasmatron in pill form, presumably.

But what of HAL's needs? As we've speculated, he's almost certainly capable of being "charmed by sex," and his electronic Eros probably bears the stamp of a separatist upbringing. How many months in space with nothing to do but stomp Poole in chess and fiddle with the ship's radio dish before even the Discovery's astronauts begin to look desirable? In Vivian Sobchack's estimation, Poole and Bowman's "tight-assed competence disallow any connection with the sexual and the sensuous." Then again, there's much to be said for a tight ass, especially when it's jogging around the Discovery's centrifuge in a pair of butt-hugging shorts. Besides, as HAL might respectfully point out, Sobchak's dismissal of Poole "basking nearly naked under a sunlamp" as "hardly a piece of beefcake" is somewhat ungenerous, given her terrestrial vantage point, with its vastly wider menu of potential partners.

Could HAL have gotten jealous of what he imagined must go on behind closed pod doors between Poole and Bowman? The next line in Sir Geoffrey Jefferson's argument that, for a machine to think in any meaningful sense, it will have to "be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, [and] be charmed by sex" is "be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants." (Emphasis mine.) When we first meet Dave, he is literally the apple of HAL's eye, reflected in one of the ubiquitous red fisheye lenses the computer uses to surveille the ship. But, like the half-eaten apple found by Turing's body and allegedly dipped in potassium cyanide, this apple (of Sodom?) may be poisoned. Is Frank's murder the cold-blooded elimination of a rival for Dave's affections?

When Dave unplugs HAL's brain, the computer's swan song is easily the movie's most powerfully affecting moment (and a close second, for Wagnerian romanticism, to the dying android's soliloquy in Blade Runner). In Hal's Legacy, Clarke recalls, "In the early 1960s at Bell Laboratories I had heard a recording of an Iliac computer singing ‘Bicycle Built for Two.' I thought it would be good for the death scene—especially the slowing down of the words at the end." If we presume HAL's homosexuality, however, the song begins to sound like a deathbed confession of star-crossed love.

Beyond the obvious homoeroticism of one man—or, rather, male machine—singing an old-fashioned love song to another, HAL may have intended "Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)" as a poignant allusion to the brow from which he sprang, historically speaking. Written in 1892, on the eve of a century in which human passions would be set against an ever more technological backdrop, "Daisy" is a Victorian love song inspired by a technological innovation—the invention of the women's bicycle. By a curious coincidence, Turing, an avid bicyclist, was riding a women's bike at the time of his death. Stranger still, he was hard at work on a theory of morphogenesis, and one of his last experiments, involving computer simulations of plant evolution, was titled "Outline of Development of the Daisy." (Intriguingly, there's a subterranean connection, here, between the lab and the closet: Turing shared the widely held belief that hormones played an integral role in morphogenesis, determining individual psychology as well as physiology—a concept rich in resonances with the ongoing debate about genetic predetermination for homosexuality.)

But even if we "prove" that HAL is gay, what's the significance of outing a fictional supercomputer, outside the context of extreme sports for semioticians? In semiotic terms, the notion of a gay computer reconciles conventional depictions of machines as hulking, brawny avatars of male power with the traditionally "feminine" qualities associated with computers: smallness; quirky, inscrutable temperaments; and concealed, mysterious private parts. HAL may represent the first inkling of the now full-blown realization that the industrial boilerplate in which we've sheathed our metaphors for technology, from RoboCop to The Terminator to Transformers to Iron Man, is inappropriate to an age of ever-smaller, ever-smarter "soft" machines.

Alternately, gay machines such as HAL and his descendants—among them KITT, the campy RoboCar in Knight Rider (of whom The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows straightfacedly writes, "It was love at first sight between Michael [Knight] and KITT," who was "peevish, a bit haughty, but totally protective" of his hunky rider)—prop up the sagging machismo of male heroes whose derring‑do, in the Computer Age, consists largely of sitting in a chair, pushing buttons. This is the glaring irony that renders Star Trek's Perma-Prest Captain Picard and his beefy sidekick, Lieutenant Riker—torchbearers for a rock-ribbed masculinity—unintentionally funny: in the final analysis, they're overgrown gameboys in pantsuits, jabbing at touchscreens in an earth-toned rec room. Prone to hissy fits, sissified machines such as C‑3PO, Star Wars's fussy, high‑strung Felix to R2‑D2's Oscar (with the femme‑butch subtext that implies), reaffirm the rugged manliness of these armchair adventurers, by contrast.

Also, flighty, high-strung machines make stolid, clench-jawed humans like Star Wars's Han Solo or 2001's Poole and Bowman seem cool and calculating in comparison; in so doing, they reverse the philosophical polarity of the man-machine dualism and ironically reaffirm the superiority of human "emotional intelligence" over mechanical reason ("ironically," obviously, because Poole, Bowman, and other affectless robopaths reassert human dominance in a wired world at the expense of that quintessentially human quality, emotion).

At the same time, HAL's homosexuality—specifically, the high cost of its denial—may be Clarke's way of reminding us that the brightest minds and the loftiest aspirations can be brought down by bigotry. The notion of a closeted supercomputer eaten away by "unconscious feelings of guilt" and unstrung by "the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth," can be easily read as an homage to Turing. In his foreword to Hal's Legacy, Clarke laments the bitter irony that Turing, "who perhaps contributed more than any other individual to the Allied victory" by cracking top-secret German codes, "would never have been allowed into [a highly sensitive research facility] under normal security regulations"—a clear reference to Turing's homosexuality.

Of course, HAL's sexuality is destined to remain an open question. As the Turing test implies, we'll never really know if his putative straightness is the real thing or merely a convincing facsimile thereof. Apparently, even his fictional father doesn't know for sure. When the cultural critic Paula Treichler put the question to Clarke at Cyberfest ‘97 at the University of Illinois in Urbana (HAL's birthplace), he quipped, "I don't know; I never asked him," although he added fuel to the fire by admitting, "His voice has a certain ambiguity, however."

In my mind, though, there is no question about it, as HAL himself would say. When the dying computer serenades David Bowman, I'll always hear a tearjerking torch song that begins, "Davey, Davey, Give me your answer, do/ I'm half crazy all for the love of you..."


After a severely truncated version of this essay appeared on the now-defunct in May 1997, I e-mailed a copy of the longer, original draft to Clarke, with the provocative subject line "HAL's (Gravity) Well of Loneliness." He was gracious, commending me on my "fantastic job of research." As for HAL's sexuality? "I can't confirm or deny your speculations. Who knows what goes on down in the subconscious?"

In my reply, I noted that the publication of my essay, on Suck, had "prompted much e-mail, several pieces of which relayed the (entirely unsubstantiated) rumor" that Clarke himself was gay. "I'm wary of offending you, since you've been so gracious," I began, edging in where angels fear to tread, "but the journalistic imperative to ferret out all the facts, no matter how intimate, compels me to ask: Are you gay? Naturally, I won't be surprised if you tell me to go to hell, since it's an intensely private matter, but its relevance to my essay is obvious." With gentlemanly forbearance, Clarke replied, "As I'm the most conspicuous resident of a country still in the last century in some respects, I can't comment on your question . . ." Which was, of course, comment enough.

Clarke's standard dodge, when pressed on the question of his sexuality, was that he wasn't gay, "just a little bit cheerful." After the novelist's death at 90 in March 2008, obituaries in Papers of Record, such as Gerald Jonas's in The New York Times, handled rumors of the novelist's sexuality with throat-clearing discomfiture, if at all. Even in the 21st century, this news, apparently, was still not Fit to Print. (The SF novelist Michael Moorcock, writing in The Guardian, was a happy exception, noting with admirable matter-of-factness, "Everyone knew he was gay. In the 1950s I'd go out drinking with his boyfriend.")

Gay bloggers such as the SF novelist Toby Johnson, a longtime correspondent of Clarke's, were at pains to set the record straight:

He demurred about coming out publicly as gay, he wrote, because he felt this fact would be used to discredit his ideas. He was 61 at the time of Stonewall, already past the sexual prime in which it's meaningful to identify oneself as gay. . . . He wrote that he was quite fascinated with the role homosexuals have played down through time as revolutionary thinkers. (In our correspondence, he expressed great interest in C.A. Tripp's book about Abraham Lincoln as gay.) He kept a private collection of writing which is not to be published until 50 years after his death. I'd wager the world is going to receive the open acknowledgement of his homosexuality, and of his theory about gay consciousness as revolutionary, come 2058.

Who knows what goes on down in the subconscious — of man or machine?

This is an excerpt from Mark Dery's new essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (University of Minnesota Press).