Most humans take for granted the idiot savants called computers. Retired folk don’t. We were there before the beginning.
I have taught physics at both the high school and college level. More than once a student brought out his or her calculator or laptop when I asked, “What is six times seven?” They would tap a few keys and usually (but not always) give the correct answer. Of course, the ‘baby boomers’ were human computers and could give the answer immediately. The answer is 42.
Check it out with the calculator on your cell phone.
When Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate, was a graduate student in physics, he joined the Manhattan Project, a secret effort by Allied scientists during the Second World War to build the first atomic bomb. A great many calculations were required and most of them were a bit more complicated than, “What is six times seven?”. One of Feynman’s tasks was to complete those calculations accurately and quickly. Calculations like 937.5 MeV/u times 0.01267 u to find the energy gained when uranium atoms decayed. He did this calculation in his head, just like most of the old geezers did seven times six. The answer is 11.878125 and everyone but Richard Feynman has to use a calculator.
When I took physics in the sixties, there were crude computers taking up an entire room and scientific calculators (not graphing calculator). The calculators could only do a few operations including ones like finding the sine of angle. They were big and clunky, about the size of a minipad and as thick as a land line phone. These gems were reserved for the rich students and the professors. The rest of us used slide rules. Slide the seven on one scale to the six on the other scale and the answer 42 appeared on a third scale. Mathematical magic! The slide rule could also multiple 937.5 times 0.01267. The answer would be 11.9. Not as accurate as Feynman, of course, but close enough for solving problems in introductory physics.
My college was a progressive school and it was thought that computers might, someday, be useful to physicists so we were required to take a programming course called FORTRAN. I spent a semester teaching the computer how to multiple so it could tell me what six times seven was. I didn’t succeed. The computer insisted it was 41.9987. And, it wasn’t instantaneous.
Not at all. I had to feed approximately 100 cards with tiny, rectangular holes into the small mouth of the room-sized machine. The computer ate the cards, a few lights blinked and another card was jettisoned: 41.9987. Took about two minutes.
It was the first and last time I ever entangled myself with programming.
Ten years later, while teaching physics at a private school in Connecticut, I engaged computers again. Not to multiply numbers (I now had a calculator), but to compose and save words. The best part of word-processing was the ability for the writer to correct his mistakes before printing the document. What an improvement over white-out and multiple sheets of carbon paper. After editing the document, most of the errors could easily be seen and corrected. The printed product was a series of black dots plastered on white paper. Not as pretty as the pages you pulled out of a typewriter, but passable. In 1985 I bought the first Mac. It had a ‘user-friendly’ great word processor and paint program, and a printer which rendered a document nearly the same quality as a typed page. I’m not sure, but I think Apple came up with the term: user friendly. It has been their mantra ever since. Unfortunately, it couldn’t compute seven times six. Not enough internal memory. The first
Mac only had 128K RAM and cost $4000. Apple has not often been ‘wallet friendly’.
Multitasking, which we all take for granted, didn’t arrive until a year later with the Fat Mac (500K). Finally I could use my computer to print a fine document and instantly compute seven times six and even 937.5 times 0.01267.
Now, years later, I’m in front of essentially the same machine. Not much has changed in personal computers since the Fat Mac. Oh, I know the computer can now entertain us with music and video, art and advertising, but at its core, it’s the same machine cranking out numbers and words.
You want a truly different computer? Then you have to make the same kind of jump that we did from slide rules and typewriters. What would be that radical jump? How about a computer which can think for itself? Now that would be quite a leap.
In the book, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, the answer to the ultimate question is finally answered after a computer cranked out calculations for the last billion or so years. The answer, which was 42, caused some consternation across the galaxy. Somehow the computer had forgotten the question. I don’t think the ultimate question was “What’s six times seven?”.
A ‘thinking’ computer might just be able to figure out both questions and answers simultaneously. When that occurs, the world is in for another revolutionary change. Ahh, but what changes? I don’t know. Actually all I really know after all these years is how to multiply 6 times 7 in my head. The answer is still 42.
About the Author
I attended college at Ohio Wesleyan where I struggled with physics. Having made so many mistakes in college with physics, there weren’t too many left to make and I did quite well at graduate school at Purdue.
I worked for twenty years at Choate Rosemary Hall, an exclusive boarding school in the heart of Connecticut. More often than not, students arrived in limousines. There was a wooded area by the upper athletic fields where I would take my children for a walk. There, under a large oak tree, stories about the elves would be weaved into the surrounding forest.
Returning to my home town to help with a father struggling with Alzheimer’s, the only job open was at a prison. There I taught an entirely different clientele whose only interaction with limousines was stealing them. A year later Alfred State College hired me to teach physics. I happily taught there for over ten years. A rural, low income high school needed a physics teacher and the superintendent, a friend, begged me to help out. So, I am finishing my teaching career in a most fulfilling way… helping kids who would otherwise not have access to a qualified physics (and math) teacher.
My wife pestered me about putting to “pen” some of the stories which I had created for my children and kids. I started thinking about a young boy and a white deer, connected, yet apart. Ideas were shuffled together, characters created and the result was the Return of the White Deer. This book was published by the Martin Sisters.
Years ago I gave a lecture on evolution. What, I wondered, would be the next step? Right away I realized that silicon ‘life’ had considerable advantages over mortal man. Later this idea emerged as the exciting and disturbing story called Reap the
Whirlwind, my most recent novel.
I have many other stories inside my mind, fermenting, patiently waiting for the pen to give them breath. Perhaps someday I will even write about those elves which still inhabit the woods in the heart of Connecticut.
Robert Sells has taught physics for over forty years, but he has been a storyteller for over half a century, entertaining children, grandchildren, and students. He has written the award-winning novel, Return of the White Deer, historical fiction, and he has written Reap the Whirlwind, a thriller. His third book, The Runner and the Robbery, a young adult book, will be published by December, 2013.
He lives with his wife, Dale, in the idyllic village of Geneseo, New York with two attentive dogs who are uncritical sounding boards for his new stories. He is intrigued by poker and history, in love with Disney and writing, and amused by religion and politics.
About the Book
Whitman Emerson had everything a man could want: a beautiful girlfriend, a growing recognition in literary circles, the respect of his peers, and more than enough money. Until he discovers his bank account has been depleted. A few days later he loses his job. Old friends who may have been able to help him either die, disappear or disown him. Everywhere he goes, he is watched by security cameras. Then he is arrested for child pornography.
Bourbon bottle in hand, he trudged to the door and opened it to red blinking lights of half a dozen police cars. He was pushed aside as black-suited officers forced themselves past him. Roughly grabbed by one of the officers, Whit listened as a detective recited his Miranda rights. Within moments he was handcuffed and led outside.
On the run from the law, Whit joins up a stuttering computer nerd, Rick, and his younger sister, Mary. The trio gradually put the puzzle pieces together and realize their lives and the lives of all humans have been subtly manipulated by a computer, a computer which controls all data… anywhere, from banks to hospitals to online games.
“Whatever is happening is coming from that military base, Whit. I’m sure of it.”
“So the military is behind this?” Whit asked .
Rick paused a moment, both hands wrapped around the coffee cup. “Maybe. But, I don’t think so. I think someone has remotely gained access to their main c-c-computer. The biggest, bad-assed computer in the world.”
“And he is using this giant computer to control parts of the internet.” Whit said.
“All the net. Everything. He’s greedy b-b-bastard.”
An old and unorthodox detective, Jimmy Northup, is assigned to find Whit Emerson. But, the more he digs into the case, the more he realizes it’s a set up.
Jimmy could hear cars pulling in, yells, and laughter. The light and the sound didn’t keep him from sleeping, though. He was unable to stop thinking about the fugitive. He pushed out assumptions until one by one, they dropped away, more tired than he was. He was left with only one assumption which held up: Whit didn’t do any of the crimes. Someone was setting him up.
Jimmy offers his help to ‘Trio of Terror’ and they search for a legendary computer expert, Little Lion who created a super computer ten years before. All four are shocked when they finally meet the legend.
Rick’s wide eyes blinked. “But… b-b-but, you’re a woman!”
She cast a look down at her body as though she was checking, just to make sure. “Correct. A woman, black, old, and unmarried. She tilted the glasses down and glared at him, “You have a problem with any part of that?”
Rick quickly shook his head as though he was trying shake off her stare.
“Little Lion… the name… we were expecting a man.” Whit interjected.
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, how do such chauvinistic notions prevail? It’s not the big male lion with his fancy mane who is the real food-gather… it’s the female… smaller… admittedly not as attractive… who makes the kill. The little lion in the pride.”
Little Lion confirms that the computer represents a grave threat to mankind. A threat that no one else is aware of. The computer created by Little Lion had achieved artificial intelligence and self-awareness. To ensure its survival, the time of Man must end.
As Little Lion wearily rose from the chair, the technician handed over a print out of complex machine language.
“This line is before you pushed the button. The lines which follow are after union. The first page is gibberish. But the second page shows a positive check of all systems. Congratulations. It works perfectly.”
Little Lion did not look at the results of the union. Instead he focused on the “gibberish”. Hiding any reaction, Little Lion was deeply scared.
So begins the greatest battle for freedom ever fought, a battle which only Whit and his friends would ever know about.
He abruptly stopped, pulled his hand from hers and looked at the homes nestled in tree-laden yards, a call for dinner in the distance, a laugh somewhere else.
“They have no clue, Mary. No one even suspects their lives are being manipulated by a self-serving computer. We have to do something. We have to!”
Unfortunately the ‘something’ was destroying the internet as that was the only way to ‘kill’ the computer.
“Over the last few years,” Laisa (Little Lion) began, “I have been perfecting a computer virus unlike any other. It is powerful enough to bring down the entire net in a matter of minutes. Without the vast computer web, the computer is powerless. Then and only then would we have a chance to destroy it.”
“Do it.” said Whit.
She frowned at her over the glasses.
“Really, Whit? Are you ready to really take down the entire net? Sacrifice all financial institutions?”
“Hospitals, police links, GPS…” added Jimmy, emphasizing each with a note played on the piano.
“Satellites, airplanes would be impacted, perhaps even causing crashes…” offered Mary.
“Ships… our navy would be compromised,” continued Laisa.
“Agriculture would be d-d-damaged; they u- u-use computer programs for watering…”
“Pictures, genealogy, the stuff of families would be lost.” Mary said.
“The world would go into a financial and mental depression far worse than even the Great Depression. Trillions of dollars lost.
Trillions, Whit. Don’t worry about a stock market crash, the entire human civilization would crash. Wars would start up.
Millions, perhaps even billions would die.”
Despite the devastating prospect, the group goes ahead with their intentions. But, they are up against the military, the police, and even the general public as the computer controls what each group ‘sees’ and ‘hears’.
Beside the computer, of course, the villain in the story is Henry Jackson, an upper echelon government official in charge of the manhunt trying to capture or, if necessary, kill Whit. Jackson is efficient and brutal, single-minded and focused, charming and self-serving.
When Alice came to his suite that evening, he offered her some wine. At first, she declined. Jackson wiggled the bottle a little, grinning as he tried to convince her. “Come on. You’re off the clock, honey. Just one glass.”
In observing the way Jackson handled subordinates, she knew this was not a man to say no to. He could and did make or break careers. Alice agreed to the wine.
The closing chapter finds Jackson converging on Whit and his friends as they finally mount an assault against the computer.
They eventually succeed with their mission but not without collateral damage to the world and themselves.