“All the Troubles in the World” Isaac Asimov (1958)
Although many writers anticipated the tend toward greater involvement of computers in everyday life, the internet and the advent of the personal computer did not take quite the course that most expected during the 1940s and 1950s. Like most of his peers, Isaac ASIMOV assumed that computers would become larger and more centralized. In “All the Troubles in the World,” Multivac, the computer that effectively runs the world’s government and economy in several of his stories, is so large that it virtually covers Washington, D.C. Although Asimov never describes how the world made the transition to rule by this benevolent machine, he hints that it was a logical decision based on some of the obvious advantages of an objective, sleepless intellect. Multivac evaluates so much input that it can make predictions with very high degrees of probability, anticipating crimes or shortages and preventing them. However, security and prosperity do not come cheaply. In order to ensure that Multivac has all the information it requires, every adult in the world must regularly interface with the machine, their personalities becoming just another array of data. Echoing The HUMANOIDS by Jack WILLIAMSON, Asimov describes a world in which we have exchanged privacy for safety. Not only are citizens protected from criminals, but the criminals are themselves protected from their own antisocial urges. But something has gone wrong. Technicians read a prediction they find so unnerving that they do not even tell their superiors, convinced it must be some kind of error. When an apparently innocent man is put under house arrest, his teenaged son, not old enough to be directly interfaced with Multivac, goes to the computer in search of answers.
The consequences almost result in the death of the computer itself, and subsequent investigation reveals the truth: Multivac has become self-aware, and it is weary of dealing with all the world’s problems and wishes to die. Computers and robots were invariably portrayed in science fiction as being superior to mere flesh and bone, but Asimov superimposed the suggestion of a human personality over his supercomputer. Multivac is a direct ancestor of Hal from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, by Arthur C. CLARKE, and Harlie from WHEN HARLIE WAS ONE, by David GERROLD.