Legacies

Does anyone else here remember Multivac?

Multivac was the creation of the brilliant Isaac Asimov, who has long been an idol of mine. When I was ten, my grandfather gave me a copy of his short story compilation I, Robot. It was the first piece of hard science fiction I have a clear memory of reading, and I loved every word of it.  Once I finished it, my grandfather made one of the most expensive statements to ever pass his lips when he said, “I’ll buy you as many books like this as you want.” (This statement was later amended to, “I’ll buy you no more than three books like this a week when you are visiting.” It still cost him thousands.)

I wandered far afield with that passport. I reveled in the near poetry of Roger Zelazny, strolled through the light fantasy of Piers Anthony, wandered the blistering sands of Frank Herbert’s Arrakis . . .it was all magical and wondrous. But at the end of my wandering, I always came home to Isaac Asimov. I was drawn to the cold, yet brilliant  Susan Calvin, robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical  Men. I was inspired by the genius of Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus in Foundation.  If you’ve read any of my posts before this one, you know Psychohistory fascinates me.

Many of Asimov’s creations linger in sci- fi and the real world to this day. Lt. Commander Data of Star Trek the Next Generation has a positronic brain, the core invention of US Robots and Mechanical Men. The man invented the word “robotics.” His Three Laws of Robotics are iconic. (Ten points to anyone who can, without looking them up, tell me what the Three Laws are.)

But where is Multivac? Where is the supercomputer owned by the government that can resolve a presidential election by questioning one man, in the short story Franchise from 1955? Have you seen it anywhere? You can’t count HAL from 2001. He’s not in the same league, as impressive as A.I. can be. HAL doesn’t data mine that deeply. The internet is closer, but less focused and directed.

We get much closer with Watson, the computer that won Jeopardy. Watson is able to listen to a question and go looking for an answer. Don’t get me wrong, that accomplishment beggars the imagination, but its got nothing on Multivac. In many ways, Multivac bears a powerful resemblance to Psychohistory. It can mine data to extrapolate to an amazing degree, answering complex questions on a national, if not global, scale. It lacks the predictive faculty of Psychohistory, but it has now pretty much figured out. Could such an astounding creation truly be forgotten?

Fear not, gentle reader. Multivac is not forgotten. It is alive and well in the form of the Machine, from Person of Interest. 

You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a Machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the Machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes affecting ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant.

This is Multivac. This is another of Asimov’s visions to echo down science fiction to the mass media. The Machine filters through all the electronic data you produce, that everyone produces, and predicts violent acts. Take a moment and think about that. How many times do you call people on a phone? That, my friends, is data. How many of you carry cell phones? If you have your GPS enabled, that is location data. What else did you look at before you started reading this? Yep, you guessed it, more data. Email is notoriously insecure.

Wanna get really scary?

How many electronic security cameras did you walk past today? How many webcams do you have in your house? That’s data too.

In fact, it’s a truly staggering amount of data. I take comfort in that fact. There are projected to be over 314 million people in this country right now, each generating some fraction or multiple of that staggering amount of data. No one can see it all. No one would have time to draw meaningful conclusions from it if they could.

It still bears thinking about, though. All it really takes is the right question, the right reason to look, and someone can learn an awful lot about you. Right now, we provide the questions, and therefore the focus point of whatever data we uncover. More pointed questions require more justification to be legal, but the information is still there, whether anyone is legally entitled to it or not.  Multivac gathers everything into one place, sorts it and collates it. Ask the right questions, and Multivac provides the answers, right there at anyone’s fingertips. The Machine, by contrast,  provides a clear focus point for its inquiries, but it initiates the inquiries itself. These properties fundamentally alter the relationship between man and machine, not to mention the relationship between my privacy and your right to know.

Asimov’s Multivac is a controlled system. The government, usually a benevolent force in the 1950’s when Multivac was born, keeps a tight rein of the massive computer. The Machine, on the other hand, is completely autonomous. It is the only thing that can access the data it uses. The show puts this forward as a justification for why it is a legal system. The Machine is a black box. No one sees how it works, only the conclusions it draws. Since no person has access to the data, no one’s rights are violated.  Are they? If we are merely part of an equation, not subject to judgment, do our rights change?

Science fiction as a medium exists to ask questions. Isaac Asimov asked many such questions. Some of them still echo through our culture today. The questions posed by Multivac have become considerably more relevant today than they were sixty years ago when he first posed them. I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. I’m not sure it matters if Big Brother has feelings or ambitions, or just quietly goes through the math. But you know what? These days, I think about them more and more.

Does anyone else here remember Multivac?

Don’t you think maybe you should?

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One Response to Legacies

  1. Ronny says:

    Nice take. I actually watched Person of Interest and really enjoyed it. Although the idea of ubiquitous surveillance is central to the story, it approaches it as the danger that it is. It is a scary thought and one that Asimov certainly looked towards, but also one that George Orwell sadly predicted as well. It might be interesting to look at how this is viewed from classic SF (Asimov) versus cyberpunk (Gibson) versus literature (Orwell) versus reality (NYPD’s all-eye surveillance).

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