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Two Sci-Fi Big Data Predictions From Over 50 Years Ago

Science fiction represents some of the most impactful stories I’ve read throughout my life.  By impactful, I mean the ideas have stuck with me 30 years since I last read them.  I recently recalled two of these stories and realized they represent two very different paths for Big Data.  One path, quite literally, was towards enlightenment.  Let’s just say the other path went in a different direction.  The amazing thing is that both of these stories were written between 50-60 years ago.

Both stories imagine worlds where a supercomputer has been created containing the entirety of knowledge in the universe (BigData 2.0?). Both stories have the main characters ask these supercomputers a seemingly unanswerable question.   The first story, in only 219 words, answers the question instantaneously. The second story, in just a few pages, spans the course of ten trillion years to answer the question.  Maybe if they had Hadoop….

Big Data’s Path To “The Terminator”

The first story, written by Fredric Brows in 1954, was titled simply “Answer” (Click here for a link to read all 219 words!)  I would be shocked if James Cameron wasn’t at least somewhat influenced by this story when he wrote the screenplay for “The Terminator”. 

The story celebrates the creation of an unnamed “cybernetics machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies.”   

Spoiler alert (Read the full story first before reading this excerpt):

 The first question that was asked of this new all-knowing supercomputer was: “Is there a God?”

Here was the response that ended the story:

“The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of single relay.

“Yes, now there is a God.”

Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.

A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.”

Big Data’s Path To Enlightenment

The second story, written by Isaac Asimov in 1956, was titled “The Last Question” (Click here for a link to the full story – one of the best sci fi shorts ever published in my opinion).   The story starts in the year 2061 with a global supercomputer called Multivac and a question to that computer asking in a nutshell if there is a way to reverse entropy.  Throughout the story, varieties of this question are posed to the supercomputer many times from characters wishing to learn how to stop the universe from eventually dying.  These questions are posed over the course of ten trillion years – and each time they receive a similar answer “THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER”.  Kind of sounds like an email you might get from your data warehouse team? 

Spoiler alert (Read the full story first before reading this excerpt):

In the end, Multivac has evolved into a consciousness known simply as AC.  All humanity, matter and energy had ended. Only AC survived to try and answer this last remaining question. Here’s how the story ends:  

All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected.

But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships.

A timeless interval was spent in doing that.

And it came to pass that AC learned how to reverse the direction of entropy.

But there was now no man to whom AC might give the answer of the last question. No matter. The answer — by demonstration — would take care of that, too.

For another timeless interval, AC thought how best to do this. Carefully, AC organized the program.

The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.

And AC said, “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”

And there was light –” 

Which path will BigData take?  I’m personally more of a half-glass full kind of person and am excited about the potential good that will come of our Big Data journey.  Just hope it won’t take ten trillion years to see results – what awful ROI!   If you want to be similarly inspired, check out Rick Smolan’s new book “The Human Face of Big Data

But just to be safe, let’s look out for that glass half empty potential, eh? 

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5 Responses to Two Sci-Fi Big Data Predictions From Over 50 Years Ago

  1. Phil Wolff says:

    I’m less concerned about the end game – we may all be part of the great computer in the sky by then – than the intermediate generations. The path to near-term authoritarian and totalitarian societies flows right through infotech and it’s our call how we architect our future.

  2. Thanks for reminding me about these wonderful stories and for prompting me to reread them.

  3. Steve S says:

    Don’t forget the Minority Report.

  4. Mark Humphries says:

    Out of curiosity I just put both questions to Google. Fortunately Google isn’t claiming deity status just yet.

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