Asimov’s Multivac and the Sybil at Cumae

Tomorrow I am leading a tutorial about the episode ‘Dinner at Trimalchio’s’ from Petronius’ Satyricon. This moment in the (oft) inane dinner conversation caught my eye:

… I actually saw with my own eyes the Sybil at Cumae dangling in a bottle, and when the children asked her in Greek: “What do you want, Sybil?” she used to answer: “I want to die.” -Trimalcio to Agamemnon, Satyricon 15.48, trans. J. P. Sullivan for Penguin

The endnotes to this description of the Cumaean Sybil (the famous one from Vergil) refer the reader to T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, which uses the original text as its epigraph before launching into the poem.

I found a different literary resonance — Isaac Asimov’s 1958 short story ‘All the Troubles of the World’ (available in The Complete Stories Vol. 1 and Nine Tomorrows). I am now about to give away the story, so apologies if you really want to read it; it’s quite clever, and deals with the issues of probability that arise from predictions not dissimilar to the same ones in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’.

Although you don’t quite know it for most of the story, the giant supercomputer Multivac is trying to orchestrate its own sabotage and destruction using crime reports — these reports themselves causing officers to engage in activities that would make Multivac’s destruction more and more likely, moving from putting someone under house arrest to that driving his underage son to seek advice from Multivac to Multivac giving him instructions on how to commit the sabotage.

Multivac was being used by the people of Earth to solve all their problems. They would ask Multivac a question, and an answer would pop out. They were required to tell the computer every aspect of their daily lives, including their thoughts, so that Multivac could reliably predict crimes and seek out solutions to political problems that would be the best available. In Asimov’s earlier story of 1955, ‘Franchise’ (also in Vol 1), Multivac would predict the outcome of the election with not a single vote being cast. In ‘All the Troubles of the World’, since crime was basically extinct, they were now about to pose to Multivac the question of curing disease.

So Multivac tries to get itself destroyed.

The story ends with the analysts asking Multivac the crucial question of Multivac’s own desires in the face of all the troubles of the world. Multivac answers, ‘I want to die.’

Multivac is a mechanised Sybil. Technology, in this vision of human development, has successfully supplanted this one role of religion. Come to Multivac with a problem, and he will give you the right answer. Like the Sybil, he is immortal. And like the Sybil, he would rather die than continue being weighed down with all the cares of the world.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s