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HAL is coming back, and it’s here to stay

China is planning to deploy a submarine labs deep into the ocean. It will be manned (?!) by robots and guided by artificial intelligence.

For those of you, as old as I am, the name HAL rings a bell. It is now 50 years since the “2001: A space Odyssey”, the movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. At that time it made quite an impression, a spaceship with an AI support, HAL, able to talk to the astronauts that eventually tried to take control of the spaceship. HAL was an example of what we call today Artificial General Intelligence, AGI, an intelligence au pair with our human intelligence.

Since that time AI is no longer a figment of imagination, it is pervasive, although it might not have reached the AGI level.

Now, the Chinese Academy of Science has announced a plan to develop a laboratory that will be deployed in the depths of the South China Sea fo research purposes.  What is impressive is that the lab is being designed to be manned (not sure if it is the right word!) by robots, each endowed with artificial intelligence.

The project was launched after the Chinese President, Xi Jinping in April 2018 visiting a deep sea research institute in the Hainan province and challenging the researches to come up wth a project that has never been attempted before. And here it is: Hades will operate in the depth of the South China Sea n the Hadal zone, at the depth between 6,000 to 10,000 meter below sea surface, clearly a place unsuitable to human researchers. Developing a lab ensuring a safe life of human researchers will be quite expensive (and might remain a risky endeavour). Hades is budgeted with the equivalent of  160 million US $, relatively cheap if compared to the set up of a space station (the International Space Station cost 150 B$, one thousand times as much) and yet the issues to be addressed are no way easier, particularly considering that Hades will be deployed in the Manila trench, an area with plenty of volcanoes and earthquakes.

One of the unmanned, robotised submarines used by the Chinese Academy of Science for deep sea research. Credit: South China Morning Post

The underwater station will serve also as docking station to several autonomous submarines that will be used to collect samples and bring them back to the lab.

The depth of the oceans are basically unchartered territory and by using robotised exploration China hopes to get an edge in underwater technologies and in the race towards AGI and fully autonomous systems.


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