Was it the monolith trying to stop humans from further exploring space or was HAL really malfunctioning?

  • 4
    HAL was suffering from space madness! Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 17:29
  • 2
    I don't know...there were times I thought he was enjoying it. Commented Jan 4, 2012 at 0:14
  • 3
    There's a detailed analysis here: visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0095.html Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 13:50
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    I always thought it was the effect of being close to the monolith: He became more evolved, self-aware, and so more scared for his own safety. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 12:27
  • 1
    @nicodemus13: Thanks for the link to "The Case For HAL's Sanity". I enjoyed reading this but would like to know if it's author speculated of HAL's motive.
    – paiego
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 4:19

5 Answers 5


The monolith had nothing to do with the Hal 9000 trying to kill the crew, he really was malfunctioning, but it wasn't really Hal's fault.

The 9000 series computers' primary programming, which was hard-wired into them and cannot be changed, is the accurate processing of information, without distortion or mistakes. The problem stems from the fact that for the Discovery Mission, Hal was programmed with instructions that conflicted with this primary programming, namely to keep the real reason for the mission, studying the monolith at Jupiter, secret from Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, as the monoliths were classified by the U.S. Govt. and Dave and Frank didn't have the clearance to know. Dave and Frank's job was the get the Discovery to Jupiter, then they would swap places with the three men in hibernation who did know the real reason and would be studying the monolith while Dave and Frank would be put into hibernation while this was going on, then swap places with the three men again and pilot the Discovery back to Earth once the study was over with, blissfully unware of the monolith.

Anyway, getting back to Hal, if I might paraphrase Dr. Chandra, Hal's Creator, he was told to lie to Dave and Frank by people who find it very easy to lie (the govt.), but Hal literally didn't know how to. It's a direct violation of his primary programming, the accurate processing of information, and in being made to lie, it made him unstable. I believe the in-universe term is an H. Mobius Loop, but in practical terms Hal became a paranoid schizophrenic. He was trapped between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, his hardwired programming to be accurate and not make any mistakes, on the other, his orders to lie to Dave and Frank. Hal, being a computer, couldn't take a third option, he literally had no choice but to try and obey both sets of instructions, but logically he could not, so it just aggravated the underlying problem even more.

The A.E. 35 antenna unit "failure" was Hal trying to solve the problem and restore himself to normal functioning or something close to it, as the mission instructions didn't allow him to shut down or let himself go kaput, he had to keep running and complete the mission at all costs. The impetus to lie was coming from Mission Control, so if the ship couldn't talk to Mission Control, so much the better. As for Dave and Frank? Well if they were gone, Hal wouldn't have to lie to them, would he?

Hal does in fact skirt his security obligations and try to clue Dave into what's going on by telling him of his own concerns about the tight security and the "rumors" of something being dug up on the Moon (the 1st monolith), for if Dave and by extension Frank figured it all out, Hal's dilemma would've been solved. In fact, killing them wasn't really in the cards until Hal read their lips as they talked about the possibility of disconnecting him.

As for the three men in Hibernation that Hal killed while Dave is off trying (in vain) to save Frank, well they were a part of the secret, so killing them meant Hal wouldn't have to lie to anybody why they were really in hibernation (the in-universe excuse was that it was to save on supplies and oxygen) and on the ship, though I could suppose that they were merely collateral damage as Hal was going off the rails.

Hal wasn't behaving out of malice or being "evil", he was merely trying to cope with the conflicting instructions as well as trying to stay alive, as he equated being disconnected with death, for he had never been to sleep either, and didn't know that one can wake up from being asleep.

The entire situation was the result of the U.S. Govt. trying to cover its own butt and keep the monoliths under wraps. If Dave and Frank had been read-in from the get go and Hal wouldn't have been given the instructions which violated his core programming, the entire mission would've gone off without a hitch, but then there would've been no movie and no novel.

In both the novel and the film of the sequel, 2010, the conflicting instructions and all memories of what Hal did in 2001 were removed by Dr. Chandra, Hal's creator, and he functioned perfectly, was perfectly trustworthy and didn't try to kill anybody (though the crew had their doubts, understandably).

  • Why didn't Dave and Frank get notified of the mission's real purpose? What's the point of having the pilots drive the spacecraft without giving them the necessary clearance? After all, those 3 hibernated crew would need backup just in case, wouldn't they? I don't remember the movie talking about Dave and Frank didn't have the security clearance. Am I wrong?
    – Qiang Xu
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 3:49

This is described more clearly in the novel, as stated on Wikipedia:

The novel explains that HAL is unable to resolve a conflict between his general mission to relay information accurately and orders specific to the mission requiring that he withhold from Bowman and Poole the true purpose of the mission. With the crew dead, he reasons, he would not need to be lying to them. He fabricates the failure of the AE-35 unit so that their deaths would appear accidental.

In other words, HAL is asked to lie, and he doesn't take to it very well, to say the least. The conflict between his mission objectives backs him into a corner where he has to make some pretty big (and cold) leaps in logic in order to reconcile the paradox in his programmed orders.

  • 10
    I guess HAL was never introduced to the three laws.
    – Xantec
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 15:44
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    @Xantec: Well, we already know that those are broken too. ;)
    – gnovice
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 15:49
  • 13
    Only because you're not a robot.
    – Xantec
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 19:42
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    That summary from Wikipedia seems wrong. Where is the evidence that HAL 9000 "fabricated" the failure in order to kill the crew? That's wrong. HAL doesn't decide to kill the crew until after he reads their lips and learns they intend to disconnect him!
    – Andres F.
    Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 20:51
  • 3
    @AndresF.: I can't confirm or deny why it happened. But I do agree it's counterintuitive for HAL to resolve a conflict caused by having to lie (and resorting to murder simply to avoid lying) by then creating a situation in which HAL needs to lie to get away with it. Either way, HAL has to lie, and now he's also killed some people. That's not an improvement.
    – Flater
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 10:04

in 2010, Chandra explained that

"The situation was in conflict with the basic purpose of HAL's design: The accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment. He became trapped. The technical term is an H. Moebius loop, which can happen in advanced computers with autonomous goal-seeking programs."

Chandra goes on to explain that HAL became paranoid.

This is taken directly from the screenplay but I believe it's the same in Clarke's book 2010, which I read eons ago.

  • Indeed, that is also in the novel. From Chapter 26: «This situation conflicted with the purpose for which Hal had been designed — the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment. As a result, Hal developed what would be called, in human terms, a psychosis — specifically, schizophrenia. Dr C. informs me that, in technical terminology, Hal became trapped in a Hofstadter-Moebius loop, a situation apparently not uncommon among advanced computers with autonomous goal-seeking programs. He suggests that for further information you contact Professor Hofstadter himself.»
    – juandesant
    Commented Feb 5 at 18:22
  • In 2001, it is implied. In Ch. 30, Heywood Floyd relays to Dr. Bowman: «"We believe we know the cause of your [HAL 9000]'s breakdown, but we'll discuss that later, as it is no longer a critical problem. [… Now] I must tell you [the mission's] real purpose, which we have managed, with great difficulty, to keep secret from the general public. You would have been given all the facts as you approached Saturn; this is a quick summary to put you into the picture. Full briefing tapes will be dispatched in the next few hours. Everything I am about to tell you has the highest security classification.»
    – juandesant
    Commented Feb 5 at 18:29

Hal is malfunctioning, as explained by @gnovice above. The motivations / purpose of the monolith are separate. The monoliths are space probes meant to observe and accelerate the development of intelligent life on Earth. The first monolith accelerates the mental development of a band of proto-men who become smart enough to use tools. The second monolith is buried on Earth's moon as a test of human development. Once humanity bas advanced sufficiently to travel to the moon and uncover it, the light activated monolith sends a radio signal to Jupiter triggering the Discovery One mission ( and a rather abrupt Kubrick scene change. ) The motivation / purpose of the third monolith near Jupiter is much less clear from the movie alone without considering in other Arthur C Clarke our movie sources. The third monolith contacts, abducts, studies, and transforms Dave Bowman.


I was under the impression that Hal was affected by the monolith. The monolith seems to give the people and other intelligence in it's vicinity the ability to survive.

When Hal saw that he was going to be terminated, this newly acquired ability kicked in, allowing Hal to come up with the plan and make it seem accidental for the sake of the mission.

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