What is ironic about Isaac Asimov's story "The Machine That Won The War"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Issac Asimov’s story “The Machine that Won the War” is ironic on a number of different levels and in a number of different ways. The story reports a conversation among three men who had been instrumental in helping the Earth win a long interplanetary war against the Denebians, who had now been “shattered and destroyed.” Most of the public credit for the victory had been given to Multivac, a gigantic underground computer that coordinated information in such a way that the leaders of Earth were eventually able to triumph.

Lamar Smith had served as Executive of the Solar Federation and was thus the leader of the war effort. John Henderson, as chief programmer of the enormous computer, had provided the data that Multivac had so importantly analyzed.  Finally, Max Jablonski had served as chief interpreter of Multivac’s output – an obviously significant job.  All three men, then, had played crucial roles in the successful war effort.  Without the input provided by Henderson, Jablonski would have had no output to interpret, and without the output interpreted by Jablonski, Smith would not have possessed the data he needed to make the crucial final decisions that led to ultimate victory.

As the three men talked, however, Henderson discussed the nature of the data he had received from other computers and other persons.  These were the data he was expected to feed into Multivac. He quickly became aware, however, that much of the data were unreliable, especially because people lower in the chain of command had provided reports designed to make themselves look good. Henderson now revealed that he had therefore supplied Multivac with data that he had “corrected” – data based largely on his own intuitions. “Toward the end,” Henderson commented,

"I scarcely cared. I just wrote out the necessary data as it was needed. I even had the Multivac Annex prepare data for me according to a private programming pattern I had devised for the purpose."

Success in the war, in other words, had apparently depended largely on Henderson’s intuitions. This is the first of the story’s main ironies.

It was at this point, however, that Jablonski revealed yet another irony: Multivax itself had not been operating reliably and could not be reliably repaired. Thus the data that Jablonski received from Henderson were not as important as Henderson had assumed. Jablonski, in fact, in interpreting the output of Multivax, had been forced to do what Henderson had done when supplying the input: he had relied largely on his own personal intuitions. As Jablonksi explained,

"I did what you did, John. I introduced the bugger factor. I adjusted matters in accordance with intuition--and that's how the machine won the war."

Ironically, then, neither the input nor the output associated with Multivax had been nearly as important as everyone had assumed. Human intuition had played a far more crucial role in the success of the war effort that anyone could have imagined.

However, the final irony of the story appears when Lamar Smith, the man who had to make the final decisions, surprisingly revealed that he had always distrusted the reports from Multivax and had not taken them very much into account when choosing how to prosecute the war effort.  Instead, he had relied on a far simpler decision-making tool when faced with a crucial choice: ironically, he had simply flipped a coin.




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