Science: A Star Is Born

In Arthur Clarke's space odyssey 2001, the most intriguing character is not flesh and blood but an extraordinary computer called HAL (for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer). Amazingly lifelike, HAL speaks with flawless diction, calmly disposes of almost any problem and—when it turns "psychotic"—does the same to most of the human crew. Could Clarke's fantasy also be prophecy? Perhaps. In a chilling augury of the cybernetic future, scientists at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have now created a computer that in some ways approaches HAL's versatility. In at least one vital respect it actually rivals its fictional counterpart: it can diagnose its own...

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