29 December 2009
In 1958 Isaac Asimov wrote a short story titled "All the Troubles of the World" (included in the collection "Nine Tomorrows"). It described a world transformed by Multivac, a giant all-knowing computer. Asimov died in 1992, a mere four years before Larry and Sergey started their project "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Below are selected quotes from Asimov's story (no spoilers), next to relevant imagery from Google.
Multivac, the giant computer had grown in fifty years until its various ramifications had filled Washington, D.C., to the suburbs and reached out tendrils to every city and town on Earth.
An army of civil servants fed it data constantly and another army correlated and interpreted the answers it gave.
A corps of engineers patrolled its interior
If you have a personal problem, you may come to Multivac with it and with its knowledge of all of you, Multivac will be able to help you.
No one will ever know your answers except Multivac unless it becomes necessary to learn the answers in order to protect you. And then only authorized officials of the government will know.
So Gulliman had ordered an analysis made (by Multivac naturally) of Multivac's capacity to turn its attention to the problem of predicting probabilities of disease incidence.
Within reach of every human being was a Multivac station with circuits into which he could freely enter his own problems and questions without control or hindrance, and from which, in a matter of minutes, he could receive answers.
At any given moment, five million individual circuits among the quadrillions or more within Multivac might be involved in this question-and-answer program.
Preadults did not generally make use of the service.
Of course, there was always a certain percentage of trivia: people who asked personal questions about their neighbors or obscene questions about prominent personalities;
Besides, each question and answer was filed and formed but another item in the fact assembly for each individual. Even the most trivial question and the most impertinent, insofar as it reflected the personality of the questioner, helped humanity by helping Multivac know about humanity.
It began, "Take the expressway to Washington, D.C. at once. Get off at the Connecticut Avenue stop. You will find a special exit, labeled 'Multivac' with a guard. [...]"
Can you imagine what the destruction of Multivac for even a short time would mean. The government would have collapsed; the economy broken down.