HAL 9000 Douglas Rain – FI

The Voice of HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Passed Away at Age 90, Influenced How Voice Assistants Sound Today

Many Voicebot Podcast listeners have noticed that the intro music is from Stanley Kubrick’s landmark film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The choice is a deliberate homage to the most iconic film-based voice assistant, HAL 9000. HAL’s voice defined the sound of a voice assistant for a generation. It also imbued latent fear among people about how an AI-based assistant could evolve interests incompatible with our own. In that case, we could be as helpless as Dave, the movie’s main character, and trying to figure out a way to disable our voice assistant and reassert control over our environment.

A big part of that fear is our increasing dependence on technology and an intermittent feeling of helplessness without it. Another part is the even, dispassioned and precise voice of HAL delivered by actor Douglas Rain. Mr. Rain passed away this week at the age of 90. His death was announced in a media release by the Stratford Festival, a Shakespearean theater company where Rain was a founding member in 1952.  CTV News reported on Rain’s death and a comment by Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino:

“Douglas Rain was that rare artist: an actor deeply admired by other actors. The voice of HAL in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ Douglas shared many of the same qualities as Kubrick’s iconic creation: precision, strength of steel, enigma and infinite intelligence, as well as a wicked sense of humour.”

Douglas Rain’s HAL Influence How Voice Assistants Sound Today

Rain’s portrayal of HAL 9000 was an inspired performance perfectly suited to the movie script. The rendition is nothing short of ominous. It also created a benchmark of what all voice assistants we hear today do not want to sound like. Cheerful, friendly female voices from Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are intentionally dissimilar to HAL. Maybe even an exact opposite of HAL depending on your point of view. Male voices such as Watson and some of the other options from Amazon Polly and Google Assistant also lean toward personable and cheerful.

There is a great deal of discussion about the voices used in assistants and what it says about our culture. However, the biggest influence may have more to do with Douglas Rain’s performance and the strong desire of voice assistant developers to avoid any association with HAL. Voice assistant developers want you to think of your assistant as helpful and not a silicon-based sociopath. So, maybe we can thank Douglas Rain for a great piece of voice acting and for the cheerful assistant dispositions available today.

Coverage of the press release and Mr. Rain’s death was originally reported by CTV News. You can hear Rain as HAL in the YouTube clip linked below.


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