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Feeling of Power

Isaac Asimov


  by Isaac Asimov

  JEHAN SHUMAN was used to dealing with the men in authori-

  ty on long-embattled Earth. He was only a civilian but he

  originated programming patterns that resulted in self-direct-

  ing war computers of the highest sort. Generals consequent-

  ly listened to him. Heads of congressional committees, too.

  There was one of each in the special lounge of New

  Pentagon. General Weider was space-burnt and had a small

  mouth puckered almost into a cipher. Congressman Brant

  was smooth-cheeked and clear-eyed. He smoked Denebian

  tobacco with the air of one whose patriotism was so no-

  torious, he could be allowed such liberties.

  Shuman, tall, distinguished, and Programmer-first-class,

  faced them fearlessly.

  He said, "This, gentlemen, is Myron Aub."

  "The one with the unusual gift that you discovered quite

  by accident," said Congressman Brant placidly. "Ah." He

  inspected the little man with the egg-bald head with amia-

  ble curiosity.

  The little man, in return, twisted the fingers of his hands

  anxiously. He had never been near such great men before. He

  was only an aging low-grade Technician who had long ago

  failed all tests designed to smoke out the gifted ones among

  mankind and had settled into the rut of unskilled labour.

  There was just this hobby of his that the great Programmer

  had found out about and was now making such a frightening

  fuss over.

  General Weider said, "I find this atmosphere of mystery


  "You won't in a moment," said Shuman. "This is not some-

  thing we can leak to the firstcomer.Aub!" There was some-

  thing imperative about his manner of biting off that

  one-syllable name, but then he was a great Programmer

  speaking to a mere Technician. "Aub! How much is nine

  times seven?"

  Aub hesitated a moment. His pale eyes glimmered with a

  feeble anxiety. "Sixty-three," he said.

  Congressman Brant lifted his eyebrows. "Is that right?"

  "Check it for yourself, Congressman."

  The Congressman took out his pocket computer, nudged

  the milled edges twice, looked at its face as it lay there in

  the palm of his hand, and put it back. He said, "Is this the

  gift you brought us here to demonstrate? An illusionist?"

  "More than that, sir. Aub has memorized a few opera-

  tions and with them he computes on paper."

  "A paper computer?" said the general. He looked pained.

  "No, sir," said Shuman patiently. "Not a paper comput-

  er. Simply a sheet of paper. General, would you be so kind

  as to suggest a number?"

  "Seventeen," said the general.

  "And you, Congressman?"


  "Good! Aub, multiply those numbers and please show the

  gentlemen your manner of doing it."

  "Yes, Programmer," said Aub, ducking his head. He fished

  a small pad out of one shirt pocket and an artist's hairline

  stylus out of the other. His forehead corrugated as he made

  painstaking marks on the paper.

  General Weider interrupted him sharply. "Let's see that."

  Aub passed him the paper, and Weider said, "Well, it

  looks like the figure seventeen."

  Congressman Brant nodded and said, "So it does, but I

  suppose anyone can copy figures off a computer. I think I

  could make a passable seventeen myself, even without prac-


  "If you will let Aub continue, gentlemen," said Shuman

  without heat.

  Aub continued, his hand trembling a little. Finally he said

  in a low voice, "The answer is three hundred and ninety-


  Congressman Brant took out his computer a second time

  and flicked it. "By Godfrey, so it is. How did he guess?"

  "No guess, Congressman," said Shuman. "He computed

  that result. He did it on this sheet of paper."

  "Humbug," said the general impatiently. "A computer is

  one thing and marks on paper are another."

  "Explain, Aub," said Shuman.

  "Yes, Programmer.Well, gentlemen, I write down seven-

  teen and just underneath it, I write twenty-three. Next I say

  to myself: seven times three"

  The Congressman interrupted smoothly, "Now, Aub, the

  problem is seventeen times twenty-three."

  "Yes, I know," said the little Technician earnestly, "but I

  start by saying seven times three because that's the way it

  works. Now seven times three is twenty-one."

  "And how do you know that?" asked the Congressman.

  "I just remember it. It's always fwenty-one on the computer.

  I've checked it any number of times."

  "That doesn't mean it always will be though, does it?"

  said the Congressman.

  "Maybe not," stammered Aub. "I'm not a mathematician.

  But I always get the right answers, you see."

  "Go on."

  "Seven times three is twenty-one, so I write down twenty-

  one. Then one times three is three, so I write down a

  three under the two of twenty-one."

  "Why under the two?" asked Congressman Brant at once.

  "Because" Aub looked helplessly at his superior for

  support. "It's difficult to explain."

  Shuman said, "If you will accept his work for the moment,

  we can leave the details for the mathematicians."

  Brant subsided.

  Aub said, "Three plus two makes five, you see, so the

  twenty-one becomes a fifty-one. Now you let that go for a

  while and start fresh. You multiply seven and two, that's

  fourteen, and one and two, that's two. Put them down like

  this and it adds up to thirty-four. Now if you put the

  thirty-four under the fifty-one this way and add them, you

  get three hundred and ninety-one and that's the answer."

  There was an instant's silence and then General Weider

  said, "I don't believe it. He goes through this rigmarole and

  makes up numbers and multiplies and adds them this way and

  that, but I don't believe it. It's too complicated to be anything

  but horn-swoggling."

  "Oh no, sir," said Aub in a sweat. "It only seems compli-

  cated because you're not used to it. Actually, the rules are

  quite simple and will work for any numbers."

  "Any numbers, eh?" said the general. "Come then." He

  took out his own computer (a severely styled Gl model)

  and struck it at random. Make a five seven three eight on

  the paper. That's five thousand seven hundred and thirty-


  "Yes, sir," said Aub, taking a new sheet of paper.

  "Now," (more punching of his computer), "seven two three

  nine. Seven thousand two hundred and thirty-nine."

  "Yes, sir."

  "And now multiply those two."

  "It will take some time," quavered Aub.

  "Take the time," said the general.

  "Go ahead, Aub," said Shuman crisply.

  Aub set to wor
k, bending low. He took another sheet

  of paper and another. The general took out his watch finally

  and stared at it. "Are you through with your magic-making,


  "I'm almost done, sir.Here it is, sir. Forty-one million,

  five hundred and thirty-seven thousand, three hundred and

  eighty-two." He showed the scrawled figures of the result.

  General Weider smiled bitterly. He pushed the multiplica-

  tion contact on his computer and let the numbers whirl to

  a halt. And then he stared and said in a surprised squeak,

  "Great Galaxy, the fella's right."

  The President of the Terrestrial Federation had grown

  haggard in office and, in private, he allowed a look of

  settled melancholy to appear on his sensitive features. The

  Denebian war, after its early start of vast movement and

  great popularity, had trickled down into a sordid matter of

  manoeuvre and countermanceuvre, with discontent rising stead-

  ily on Earth. Possibly it was rising on Deneb, too.

  And now Congressman Brant, head of the important Com-

  mittee on Military Appropriations, was cheerfully and smooth-

  ly spending his half-hour appointment spouting nonsense.

  "Computing without a computer," said the president im-

  patiently, "is a contradiction in terms."

  "Computing," said the Congressman, "is only a system for

  handling data. A machine might do it, or the human brain

  might. Let me give you an example." And, using the new

  skills he had learned, he worked out sums and products

  until the president, despite himself, grew interested.

  "Does this always work?"

  "Every time, Mr. President. It is foolproof."

  "Is it hard to learn?"

  "It took me a week to get the real hang of it. I think you

  would do better."

  "Well," said the president, considering, "it's an interesting

  parlour game, but what is the use of it?"

  "What is the use of a newborn baby, Mr. President? At

  the moment there is no use, but don't you see that this

  points the way towards liberation from the machine. Consider,

  Mr. President," the Congressman rose and his deep voice

  automatically took on some of the cadences he used in public

  debate, "that the Denebian war is a war of computer against

  computer. Their computers forge an impenetrable field of

  counter-missiles against our missiles, and ours forge one

  against theirs. If we advance the efficiency of our comput-

  ers, so do they theirs, and for five years a precarious and

  profitless balance has existed.

  "Now we have in our hands a method for going beyond

  the computer, leapt rogging it, passing through it. We will

  combine the mechanics of computation with human thought;

  we will have the equivalent of intelligent computers; billions

  of them. I can't prediet what the consequences will be in

  detail but they will be incalculable. And if Deneb beats us to

  the punch, they may be unimaginably catastrophic."

  The president said, troubled, "What would you have me


  "Put the power of the administration behind the establish-

  ment of a secret project on human computation. Call it

  Project Number, if you like. I can vouch for my committee,

  but I will need the administration behind me."

  "But how far can human computation go?"

  "There is no limit. According to Programmer Shuman, who

  first introduced me to this discovery"

  "I've heard of Shuman, of course."

  "Yes. Well, Dr. Shuman tells me that in theory there is

  nothing the computer can do that the human mind cannot

  do. The computer merely takes a finite amount of data and

  performs a finite number of operations upon them. The hu-

  man mind can duplicate the process."

  The president considered that. He said, "If Shuman says

  this, I am inclined to believe himin theory. But, in prac-

  tice, how can anyone know how a computer works?"

  Brant laughed genially. "Well, Mr. President, I asked the

  same question. It seems that at one time computers were de-

  signed directly by human beings. Those were simple compu-

  ters, of course, this being before the time of the rational use of

  computers to design more advanced computers had been es-


  "Yes, yes. Go on."

  "Technican Aub apparently had, as his hobby, the recon-

  struction of some of these ancient devices and in so doing he

  studied the details of their workings and found he could im-

  itate them. The multiplication I just performed for you is

  an imitation of the workings of a computer."


  The Congressman coughed gently, "If I may make another

  point, Mr. President The further we can develop this

  thing, the more we can divert our Federal effort from com-

  puter production and computer maintenance. As the human

  brain takes over, more of our energy can be directed into

  peacetime pursuits and the impingement of war on the ordi-

  nary man will be less. This will be more advantageous for

  the party in power, of course."

  "Ah," said the president, "I see your point. Well, sit down,

  Congressman, sit down. I want some time to think about

  this. But meanwhile, show me that multiplication trick

  again. Let's see if I can't catch the point of it."

  Programmer Shuman did not try to hurry matters. Loesser

  was conservative, very conservative and liked to deal with

  computers as his father and grandfather had. Still, he con-

  trolled the West European computer combine, and if he could

  be persuaded to join Project Number in full enthusiasm, a

  great deal would be accomplished.

  But Loesser was holding back. He said, "I'm not sure I

  like the idea of relaxing our hold on computers. The human

  mind is a capricious thing. The computer will give the same

  answer to the same problem each time. What guarantee

  have we that the human mind will do the same?"

  "The human mind, Computer Loesser, only manipulates

  facts. It doesn't matter whether the human mind or a machine

  does it. They are just tools."

  "Yes, yes. I've gone over your ingenious demonstration

  that the mind can duplicate the computer, but it seems to me

  a little in the air. I'll grant the theory but what reason have

  we for thinking that theory can be converted to practice?"

  "I think we have reason, sir. After all, computers have

  not always existed. The cave men with their triremes, stone

  axes, and railroads had no computers."

  "And possibly they did not compute."

  "You know better than that. Even the building of a rail-

  road or a ziggurat called for some computing, and that must

  have been without computers as we know them."

  "Do you suggest they computed in the fashion you demon-


  "Probably not. After all, this methodwe call it 'graph-

  itics,' by the way, from the old European word 'grapho'

  meaning 'to write'is developed from the computers them-

  selves so it cannot have antedated them. Still, the cave men

; must have had some method, eh?"

  "Lost arts! If you're going to talk about lost arts"

  "No, no. I'm not a lost art enthusiast, though I don't say

  there may not be some. After all, man was eating grain be-

  fore hydroponics, and if the primitives ate grain, they must

  have grown it in soil. What else could they have done?"

  "I don't know, but I'll believe in soil-growing when I see

  someone grow grain in soil. And I'll believe in making fire

  by rubbing two pieces of flint together when I see that, too."

  Shuman grew placative. "Well, let's stick to graphitics. It's

  just part of the process of etherealization. Transportation by

  means of bulky contrivances is giving way to direct mass

  transference. Communications devices become less massive

  and more efficient constantly. For that matter, compare your

  pocket computer with the massive jobs of a thousand years

  ago. Why not, then, the last step of doing away with com-

  puters altogether? Come, sir. Project Number is a going con-

  cern; progress is already headlong. But we want your help.

  If patriotism doesn't move you, consider the intellectual ad-

  venture involved."

  Loesser said sceptically, "What progress? What can you do

  beyond multiplication? Can you integrate a transcendental


  "In time, sir. In time. In the last month I have learned

  to handle division. I can determine, and correctly, integral

  quotients and decimal quotients."

  "Decimal quotients? To how many places?"

  Programmer Shuman tried to keep his tone casual. "Any


  Loesser's lower jaw dropped. "Without a computer?"

  "Set me a problem."

  "Divide twenty-seven by thirteen. Take it to six places."

  Five minutes later, Shuman said, "Two point oh seven six

  nine two three."

  Loesser checked it. "Well, now, that's amazing. Mulitiplica-

  tion didn't impress me too much because it involved in-

  tegers after all, and I thought trick manipulation might do

  it. But decimals"

  "And that is not all. There is a new development that is,

  so far, top secret and which strictly speaking, I ought not to

  mention. Stillwe may have made a breakthrough on the

  square root front."

  "Square roots?"

  "It involves some tricky points and we haven't licked the

  bugs yet, but Technician Aub, the man who invented the

  science and who has an amazing intuition in connection

  with it, maintains he has the problem almost solved. And he