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“The Last Question” and why I am so intrigued by it


Hi,

Yesterday I wanted to read this amazing short story by Isaac Asimov that I had read long ago during my MBA course. I did not know the title of the story and only remembered that it ended with the following line: “Let there be light”. So I googled “Let there be Light + Isaac Asimov” and stumbled upon this site (Recommend reading the story if you have time, otherwise try to follow the summary I have written below).

Issac Asimov - The Last Question

The short story I am talking about is titled “The Last Question”. It was originally published in 1956 by Isaac Asimov. You can read more about this short story on its Wikipedia Page.

The Last Question is undoubtedly the most fascinating short story and/or piece of science fiction that I have ever read. It addresses the ultimate question and what I believe gives the very meaning to our existence. While at the moment my mind is full of philosophy about human existence etc I will avoid going tangential.

Summary of the Story

Coming back to this story, it basically starts off with a question to which no one has an answer i.e.

“Can entropy be reversed?”

This question is posed to a super computer called Multivac which is the first true super computer with its own consciousness of sorts:

“Multivac was self-adjusting and self-correcting. It had to be, for nothing human could adjust and correct it quickly enough or even adequately enough”

On gaps of many millions of years this question is asked repeatedly by various people and they always get only one answer:

“INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER”

Overtime the Multivac evolves into much more complex form and starts to exist in Hyperspace and across the cosmos connecting various galaxies in a manner which is best left to the whims of sci-fi authors. (I mean please read the story to get a sense; it’s very tough for me to explain this :))

However even after all those evolutions; the main computer (called AC at the last stage of the story) is unable to find an answer to the question. For trillions of years the computer continues to collect data and try to solve this problem but is unable to do so. Read this short excerpt from the story:

“Cosmic AC,” said Man, “How may entropy be reversed?”

The Cosmic AC said, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

Man said, “Collect additional data.”

The Cosmic AC said, “I WILL DO SO. I HAVE BEEN DOING SO FOR A HUNDRED BILLION YEARS. MY PREDECESSORS AND I HAVE BEEN ASKED THIS QUESTION MANY TIMES. ALL THE DATA I HAVE REMAINS INSUFFICIENT.”

“Will there come a time,” said Man, “when data will be sufficient or is the problem insoluble in all conceivable circumstances?”

The Cosmic AC said, “NO PROBLEM IS INSOLUBLE IN ALL CONCEIVABLE CIRCUMSTANCES.”

Man said, “When will you have enough data to answer the question?”

“THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

“Will you keep working on it?” asked Man.

The Cosmic AC said, “I WILL.”

Man said, “We shall wait.”

Long after all humanity is gone due to exhaustion of all energy in the universe, the Cosmic AC continues to process data to find answer to this question. It finally finds an answer and then decides to demonstrate the solution as there was no human left to give the solution to.

It says “Let there be light”

According to Christianity, “Let there be light” are the words uttered by God after which Universe came into being (or let me say what I want to say: Big bang occurred and the natural processes unfolded and formed what we know and can see today)

What intrigues me?

Firstly any association of science and religion is something that I always find very interesting to read. And when it’s done by a master like Isaac Asimov, I have to write about it 🙂

Secondly it is very intriguing to read about various sci-fi concepts that are discussed in this story. Let me explain these and my thoughts about it by quoting from the story.

“Minds, not bodies! The immortal bodies remained back on the planets, in suspension over the eons.”

It instantly reminded me of two things:

1. Matrix: In this Hollywood blockbuster, most of the humans are plugged into the matrix and their bodies are actually immaterial. It is the prime program and the role of the mind in the simulated world that matters.

2.Bhagavad Gita: In Gita, Lord Krishna says that the loss of material bodies is not worthy of grief and one should not allow it to inhibit ones performance of duty. It is the soul that matters the most and the soul is eternal, indestructible and insoluble.

Well this is not to say that they borrowed from each other. I really don’t know about that. I am only trying to connect things in my mind.

“One by one Man fused with AC, each physical body losing its mental identity in a manner that was somehow not a loss but a gain.”

Again it obviously reminds me of Matrix where the human bodies are fused with a main computer that simulates the virtual world for the human minds while drawing power from their bodies –  An interesting ‘symbiotic relationship’ which is certainly beneficial for both the parties. Machines get access to a virtually unlimited source of power while Humans are saved from their own self-destructive nature and get to survive as a race. As machines are a creation of humans they ensure (on behalf of humans) that the process of unraveling all the mysteries of universe goes on in a reasonable and unhindered manner while Humans (who are incapable carrying out the above mentioned process in an unhindered manner due to their self-destructive nature) continue to contribute to the same albeit in a tacit manner (assuming that the consciousness of the main computer is not derived from and/or is not the sum total of consciousness of all the human minds connected to it)

During the discourse of Bhagavat Gita to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra , Lord Krishna displays his original form which Hindus normally refer to as the ‘Virat Roop’. In the Virat Roop, the lord shows that he is responsible for everything that we see around us. He is responsible for the life, death, calamity, success, happiness, grief etc. Two cool points arise out of this:

1. Matrix’s main computer does the same kind of simulation that god claims to do for us in his discourse in Bhagavad Gita.

2. In Isaac Asimov’s short story, there is not much clarity about how the main computer (referred to as the AC) utilizes the minds connected to it but what is certainly clear that humans consciously submit their minds to the AC and that the minds are living in a virtual/simulated world where they are capable of interacting with any other mind irrespective of the physical distances between them. In addition, the AC somehow derived its consciousness from the collective consciousness of the minds attached to it. Consider the excerpts (below) from the story based on which I have made the above-mentioned conclusions:

“Man considered with himself, for in a way, Man, mentally, was one. He consisted of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies, each in its place, each resting quiet and incorruptible, each cared for by perfect automatons, equally incorruptible, while the minds of all the bodies freely melted one into the other, indistinguishable.”

“Zee Prime’s thoughts fled back to his own Galaxy. He gave no further thought to Dee Sub Wun, whose body might be waiting on a galaxy a trillion light-years away, or on the star next to Zee Prime’s own. It didn’t matter.”

I might make additions to this post if I have any more thoughts and free time like I had today (I thought out and wrote the whole thing in office coz there is no other work :P)



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  • http://www.YogaVidya.com/ Brian

    This short story was made into a great planetarium show in the early 70s, I think originally by Abrahms Planetarium at Michigan State University.

    BTW, do you know about this edition of the Gita?

    http://www.YogaVidya.com/gita.html

  • http://www.YogaVidya.com/ Brian

    This short story was made into a great planetarium show in the early 70s, I think originally by Abrahms Planetarium at Michigan State University.

    BTW, do you know about this edition of the Gita?

    http://www.YogaVidya.com/gita.html