Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626
“The Machine That Won the War” (1961) is a science fiction story by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). As the tale opens, scientists who have been tending to the enormous “Multivac” computer have taken a rest and the huge machine itself has been given some temporary down-time. War has ended, celebrations have...
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“The Machine That Won the War” (1961) is a science fiction story by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). As the tale opens, scientists who have been tending to the enormous “Multivac” computer have taken a rest and the huge machine itself has been given some temporary down-time. War has ended, celebrations have been taking place, and the machine is not immediately needed now, although it will soon be needed during the new era of peace.
Lamar Swift, Executive Director of the Solar Federation, who has led the war effort against Deneb (another planet), says that it will be hard to imagine life without war. John Henderson, in response, expresses joy that the Denebians have been destroyed. Swift gives the credit to Multivac as he glances at Max Jablonski, who has worked closely with the machine. Swift wonders if Jablonski is jealous of the credit the machine is being given by the population of earth. Jablonski contemptuously replies that if they want to celebrate the machine, he doesn’t care.
Henderson comments that the machine was not superior to the input it received—input, Jablonski is quick to note, that Henderson had provided. Henderson responds that any data he received to input into Multivac had come from numerous other, smaller computers. He had been Chief Programmer for eight years and had seen the war become increasingly more destructive. He confesses that eventually the data he received had become “meaningless.” He notes that neither Jablonski nor Swift had had enough involvement in collecting the data to realize how meaningless it was. Lower-level officials, for instance, had supplied information intended to make them look good. Henderson says that he had been unable to make sure that he was receiving more reliable data. Making this fact public would have destroyed morale on earth, since all hopes had been pinned on the intelligence of this unique machine. Therefore, Henderson now confesses, in supplying data to Multivac, he had simply relied on intuition—on his own sense of what made sense.
Jablonski responds that the data Henderson supplied didn’t really matter. He reveals that Multivac never really functioned in a totally reliable way and that his staff was not experienced enough to help him during the final years of the war. Most of his senior technicians had been sent off to deal with other assignments and most of the assistants he relied on in later years were either too young to know much or too old to be familiar with the latest advances in the field. In any case, the physical equipment he was being provided with to help keep Multivac running properly was often defective. It therefore made no difference whether the data input into Multivac was trustworthy, since the machine’s output was definitely not worth trusting at all.
Asked how he dealt with such problems, Jablonski replies that he acted as Henderson had acted: he had trusted his own intuitions. Because he did so, “the machine won the war.” Swift, who had been in charge of the entire war effort, does not seem especially astonished by the revelations of Henderson and Jablonski. He reveals that all along he had not trusted the advice he had been receiving from Multivac. He could never quite know how reliable such advice would be. He now feels relieved that he had not completely relied on a computer which, it turns out, was not very reliable all along.
When Jablonski asks Swift how Swift actually made decisions, Swift reveals that he did indeed rely on a computer, but one much older than Multivac. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a cigarette and some change. Choosing one particular coin, he explains that whenever he had faced a particularly difficult choice, he had simply flipped a coin.