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Multivac is the name of a fictional supercomputer in many stories by Isaac Asimov. According to his autobiography In Memory Yet Green, Asimov coined the name in imitation of UNIVAC, an early mainframe computer. Asimov had assumed the name "Univac" denoted a computer with a single vacuum tube (it actually is an acronym for "Universal Automatic Computer"), and on the basis that a computer with many such tubes would be more powerful, called his fictional computer "Multivac". His later short story "The Last Question", however, expands the AC suffix to be "automatic computer".
Like most of the technologies Asimov describes in his fiction, Multivac's exact specifications vary among appearances. In all cases, it is a government-run computer that answers questions, and is usually buried deep underground for security purposes. However, Asimov never settles on a particular size for the computer (except for mentioning it is very large) or the supporting facilities around it. "Franchise" states it is half a mile long and three storeys high, at least as far as the general public knows, while "All the Troubles of the World" states it fills all of Washington D.C.. There are frequent mentions of corridors and people inside Multivac. Unlike the artificial intelligences portrayed in his Robot series, Multivac's interface is mechanized and impersonal, consisting of complex command consoles few humans can operate (with the exception of "Key Item").
Though the technology depended on bulky vacuum tubes, the concept – that all information could be contained on computer(s) and accessed from a domestic terminal – constitutes an early reference to the possibility of the Internet (as in "Anniversary"). In "The Last Question", Multivac is shown as having a life of many thousands of years, growing ever more enormous with each section of the story, which can explain its different reported sizes as occurring further down the internal timeline of the overarching story.
In the early Multivac story, "Franchise", Multivac chooses a single "most representative" person from the population of the United States, whom the computer then interrogates to determine the country's overall orientation. All elected offices are then filled by the candidates the computer calculates as acceptable to the populace. Asimov wrote this story as the logical culmination – and/or possibly the reductio ad absurdum – of UNIVAC's ability to forecast election results from small samples.
In possibly the most famous Multivac story, "The Last Question", two slightly drunken technicians ask Multivac if humanity can reverse the increase of entropy. Multivac fails, displaying the error message "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER". The story continues through many iterations of computer technology, each more powerful and ethereal than the last. Each of these computers is asked the question, and each returns the same response until finally the universe dies. At that point Multivac's final successor, the Cosmic AC (which exists entirely in hyperspace) has collected all the data it can, and so poses the question to itself. As the universe died, Multivac drew all of humanity into hyperspace, to preserve them until it could finally answer the Last Question. Ultimately, Multivac did decipher the answer, announcing "Let there be light!" and essentially ascending to the state of the God of the Old Testament. Asimov claimed this to be the favorite of his stories.
In "All the Troubles of the World", the version of Multivac depicted reveals a very unexpected problem. Having had the weight of the whole of humanity's problems on its figurative shoulders for ages it has grown tired, and sets plans in motion to cause its own death.
Asimov's stories featuring Multivac:
- "Question" (1955; withdrawn)
- "Franchise" (1955)
- "The Dead Past" (1956)
- "Someday" (1956)
- "The Last Question" (1956)
- "Jokester" (1956)
- "All the Troubles of the World" (1958)
- "Anniversary" (1959)
- "The Machine that Won the War" (1961)
- "My Son, the Physicist" (1962)
- "Key Item" (1968)
- "The Life and Times of Multivac" (1975)
- "Point of View" (1975)
- "True Love" (1977)
- "It Is Coming" (1979)
- "Potential" (1983)
- Asimov, Isaac (1979). In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954. New York: Doubleday. p. 663. ISBN 9780385136792. OCLC 4491369.
Univac is an acronym for 'Universal Automatic Computer' but I somehow got it into my head, without thinking, that it meant 'uni-vac', or 'one vacuum tube.' From then on, I wrote a series of stories featuring a giant computer I called 'Multivac.'
- Seiler, Edward (11 July 2014). "Frequently Asked Questions about Isaac Asimov". Asimov Online.
Of his own work, what were Asimov's favorite and least favorite novels? What were his favorite and least favorite stories?
- Jenkins, John H. "Question". Asimov Reviews.