The Feeling of Power
by Isaac Asimov
Jehan Shuman was used to dealing with the men in authority on
long-embattled earth. He was only a civilian but he originated
programming patterns that resulted in self-directing war computers of
the highest sort. Generals, consequently listened to him. Heads of
congressional committees too.
There was one of each in the special lounge of New Pentagon.
General Weider was space-burned and had a small mouth puckered almost
into a cipher. He smoked Denebian tobacco with the air of one whose
patriotism was so notorious, he could be allowed such liberties.
Shuman, tall, distinguished, and Programmer-first-class, faced
He said, "This, gentlemen, is Myron Aub."
"The one with the unusual gift that you discovered quite by
accident," said Congressman Brant placidly. "Ah." He inspected the
little man with the egg-bald head with amiable curiosity.
The little man, in return, twisted the fingers of his hands
anxiously. He had never been near such great men before. He was only
an aging low-grade technician who had long ago failed all tests
designed to smoke out the gifted ones among mankind and had settled
into the rut of unskilled labor. There was just this hobby of his that
the great Programmer had found out about and was now making such a
frightening fuss over.
General Weider said, "I find this atmosphere of mystery
"You won't in a moment," said Shuman. "This is not something
we can leak to the firstcomer. Aub!" There was something imperative
about his manner of biting off that one-syllable name, but then he
was a great Programmer speaking to a mere technician. "Aub! How much
is nine times seven?"
Aub hesitated a moment. His pale eyes glimmered with a feeble
"Sixty-three," he said.
Congressman Brant lifted his eyebrows. "Is that right?"
"Check it for yourself, Congressman."
The congressman took out his pocket computer, nudged the
milled edges twice, looked at its face as it lay there in the palm
of his hand, and put it back. He said, "Is this the gift you brought
us here to demonstrate. An illusionist?"
"More than that, sir. Aub has memorized a few operations and
with them he computes on paper."
"A paper computer?" said the general. He looked pained.
"No, sir," said Shuman patiently. "Not a paper computer.
Simply a piece of paper. General, would you be so kind as to suggest
"Seventeen," said the general.
"And you, Congressman?"
"Good! Aub, multiply those numbers, and please show the
gentlemen your manner of doing it."
"Yes, Programmer," said Aub, ducking his head. He fished a
small pad out of one shirt pocket and an artist's hairline stylus out
of the other. His forehead corrugated as he made painstaking marks on
General Weider interrupted him sharply. "Let's see that."
Aub passed him the paper, and Weider said, "Well, it looks
like the figure seventeen."
Congressman Brant nodded and said, "So it does, but I suppose
anyone can copy figures off a computer. I think I could make a
passable seventeen myself, even without practice."
"If you will let Aub continue, gentlemen," said Shuman without
Aub continued, his hand trembling a little. Finally he said in
a low voice, "The answer is three hundred and ninety-one."
Congressman Brant took out his computer a second time and
flicked it. "By Godfrey, so it is. How did he guess?"
"No guess, Congressman," said Shuman. "He computed that result.
He did it on this sheet of paper."
"Humbug," said the general impatiently. "A computer is one
thing and marks on a paper are another."
"Explain, Aub," said Shuman.
"Yes, Programmer. Well, gentlemen, I write down seventeen, and
just underneath it I write twenty-three. Next I say to myself: seven
times three ----"
The congressman interrupted smoothly, "Now, Aub, the problem is
seventeen times twenty-three."
"Yes, I know," said the little technician earnestly, "but I
start by saying seven times three because that's the way it works. Now
seven times three is twenty-one."
"And how do you know that?" asked the congressman.
"I just remember it. It's always twenty-one on the computer.
I've checked it any number of times."
"That doesn't mean it always will be, though, does it?" said
"Maybe not," stammered Aub. "I'm not a mathematician. But I
always get the right answers, you see."
"Seven times three is twenty-one, so I write down twenty-one.
Then one times three is three, so I write down three under the two of
"Why under the two?" asked Congressman Brant at once.
"Because---" Aub looked helplessly at his superior for support.
"It's difficult to explain."
Shuman said, "If you will accept his work for the moment, we
can leave the details for the mathematicians."
Aub said, "Three plus two makes five, you see, so the twenty-
one becomes a fifty-one. Now you let that go for a while and start
fresh. You multiply seven and two, that's fourteen, and one and two,
that's two. Put them down like this and it adds up to thirty-four. Now
if you put the thirty-four under the fifty-one this way and add them,
you get three hundred and ninety-one, and that's the answer."
There was an instant's silence and then General Weider said,
"I don't believe it. He goes through this rigmarole and makes up
numbers and multiplies and adds them this way and that, but I don't
believe it. It's too complicated to be anything but horn-swoggling."
"Oh no, sir," said Aub in a sweat. "It only seems complicated
because you're not used to it. Actually the rules are quite simple and
will work for any numbers."
"Any numbers, eh?" said the general. "Come, then." He took out
his own computer (a severely styled GI model) and struck it at random.
"Make a five seven three eight on the paper. That's five thousand
seven hundred and thirty-eight."
"Yes, sir," said Aub, taking a new sheet of paper.
"Now"---more punching of his computer---"seven two three nine.
Seven thousand two hundred and thirty-nine."
"And now multiply those two."
"It will take some time," quavered Aub.
"Take the time," said the general.
"Go ahead, Aub," said Shuman crisply.
Aub set to work, bending low. He took another sheet of paper
and another. The general took out his watch finally and stared at it.
"Are you through with your magic-making, Technician?"
"I'm almost done, sir. Here it is, sir. Forty-one million,
five hundred and thirty-seven thousand, three hundred and eighty-two."
He showed the scrawled figures of the result.
General Weider smiled bitterly. He pushed the multiplication
contact on his computer and let the numbers whirl to a halt. And then
he stared and said in a surprised squeak, "Great Galaxy, the fella's
The President of the Terrestrial Federation had grown haggard
in office and, in private, he allowed a look of settled melancholy to
appear on his sensitive features. The Denebian War, after its early
start of vast movement and great popularity, had trickled down into a
sordid matter of maneuver and counter-maneuver, with discontent rising
steadily on earth. Possibly, it was rising on Deneb, too.
And now Congressman Brant, head of the important Committee on
Military Appropriations, was cheerfully and smoothly spending his
half-hour appointment spouting nonsense.
"Computing without a computer," said the president impatiently,
"is a contradiction in terms."
"Computing," said the congressman, "is only a system for
handling data. A machine might do it, or the human brain might. Let me
give you an example." And, using the new skills he had learned, he
worked out sums and products until the president, despite himself,
"Does this always work?"
"Every time, Mr. President. It is foolproof."
"Is it hard to learn?"
"It took me a week to get the real hang of it. I think you
would do better."
"Well," said the president, considering, "it's an interesting
parlor game, but what is the use of it?"
"What is the use of a newborn baby, Mr. President? At the
moment there is no use, but don't you see that this points the way
toward liberation from the machine. Consider, Mr. President" ---the
congressman rose and his deep voice automatically took on some of the
cadences he used in public debate--- "that the Denebian War is a war
of computer against computer. Their computers forge an impenetrable
shield of countermissiles against our missiles, and ours forge one
against theirs. If we advance the efficiency of our computers, so do
they theirs, and for five years a precarious and profitless balance
"Now we have in our hands a method for going beyond the
computed, leapfrogging it, passing through it. We will combine the
mechanics of computation with human thought; we will have the
equivalent of intelligent computers, billions of them. I can't
predict what the consequences will be in detail, but they will be
incalculable. And if Deneb beats us to the punch, they may be
The president said, troubled, "What would you have me do?"
"Put the power of the administration behind the establishment
of a secret project on human computation. Call it Project Number, if
you like. I can vouch for my committee, but I will need the
administration behind me."
"But how far can human computation go?"
"There is no limit. According to Programmer Shuman, who first
introduced me to this discovery---"
"I've heard of Shuman, of course."
"Yes. Well, Dr. Shuman tells me that in theory there is
nothing the computer can do that the human mind cannot do. The
computer merely takes a finite amount of data and performs a finite
amount of operations on them. The human mind can duplicate the
The president considered that. He said, "If Shuman says this,
I am inclined to believe him---in theory. But, in practice, how can
anyone know how a computer works?"
Brant laughed genially. "Well, Mr. President, I asked the
same question. It seems that at one time computers were designed
directly by human beings. Those were simple computers, of course,
this being before the time of the rational use of computers to design
more advanced computers had been established."
"Yes, yes. Go on."
"Technician Aub apparently had, as his hobby, the
reconstruction of some of these ancient devices, and in so doing he
studied the details of their workings and found he could imitate them.
The multiplication I just performed for you is an imitation of the
workings of a computer."
The congressman coughed gently. "If I may make another point,
Mr. President---the further we can develop this thing, the more we
can divert our federal effort from computer production and computer
maintenance. As the human brain takes over, more of our energy can
be directed into peacetime pursuits and the impingement of war on the
ordinary man will be less. This will be most advantageous for the
party in power, of course."
"Ah," said the president, "I see your point. Well, sit down,
Congressman, sit down. I want some time to think about this. But
meanwhile, show me that multiplication trick again. Let's see if I
can't catch the point of it."
Programmer Shuman did not try to hurry matters. Loesser was
conservative, very conservative, and liked to deal with computers as
his father and grandfather had. Still, he controlled the West
European computer combine, and if he could be persuaded to join
Project Number in full enthusiasm, a great deal would be accomplished.
But Loesser was holding back. He said, "I'm not sure I like
the idea of relaxing our hold on computers. The human mind is a
capricious thing. The computer will give the same answer to the same
problem each time. What guarantee have we that
the human mind will do the same?"
"The human mind, Computer Loesser, only manipulates facts. It
doesn't matter whether the human mind or a machine does it. They are
"Yes, yes. I've gone over your ingenious demonstration that
the mind can duplicate the computer, but it seems to me a little in
the air. I'll grant the theory, but what reason have we for thinking
that theory can be converted to practice?"
"I think we have reason, sir. After all, computers have not
always existed. The cavemen with their triremes, stone axes, and
railroads had no computers."
"And possibly they did not compute."
"You know better than that. Even the building of a railroad
or a ziggurat called for some computing, and that must have been
without computers as we know them."
"Do you suggest they computed in the fashion you demonstrate?"
"Probably not. After all, this method---we call it
'graphitics,' by the way, from the old European word 'grapho,' meaning
'to write'---is developed from the computers themselves, so it cannot
have antedated them. Still, the cave men must have had some method,
"Lost arts! If you're going to talk about lost arts---"
"No, no. I'm not a lost art enthusiast, though I don't say
there may not be some. After all, man was eating grain before
hydroponics, and if the primitives ate grain, they must have grown
it in soil. What else could they have done?"
"I don't know, but I'll believe in soil growing when I see
someone grow grain in soil. And I'll believe in making fire by
rubbing two pieces of flint together when I see that too."
Shuman grew placative. "Well, let's stick to graphitics.
It's just part of the process of etherealization. Transportation by
means of bulky contrivances is giving way to mass transference.
Communications devices become less massive and more efficient
constantly. For that matter, compare your pocket computer with the
massive jobs of a thousand years ago. Why not, then, the last step of
doing away with computers altogether? Come, sir, Project Number is a
going concern; progress is already headlong. But we want your help.
If patriotism doesn't move you, consider the intellectual adventure
Loesser said skeptically, "What progress? What can you do
beyond multiplication? Can you integrate a transcendental function?"
"In time, sir. In time. In the last month, I have learned to
handle division. I can determine, and correctly, integral quotients
and decimal quotients."
"Decimal quotients? To how many places?"
Programmer Shuman tried to keep his tone casual. "Any number!"
Loesser's jaw dropped. "Without a computer?"
"Set me a problem."
"Divide twenty-seven by thirteen. Take it to six places."
Five minutes later Shuman said, "Two point oh seven six nine
Loesser checked it. "Well, now, that's amazing. Multiplication
didn't impress me too much because it involved integers, after all,
and I thought trick manipulation might do it. But decimals---"
"And that is not all. There is a new development that is, so
far, top secret and which, strictly speaking, I ought not to mention.
Still---we may have made a break-through on the square root front."
"It involves some tricky points and we haven't licked the bugs
yet, but Technician Aub, the man who invented the science and who has
amazing intuition in connection with it, maintains he has the problem
almost solved. And he is only a technician. A man like yourself, a
trained and talented mathematician, ought to have no difficulty."
"Square roots," muttered Loesser, attracted.
"Cube roots, too. Are you with us?"
Loesser's hand thrust out suddenly. "Count me in."
General Weider stumped his way back and forth at the head of
the room and addressed his listeners after the fashion of a savage
teacher facing a group of recalcitrant students. It made no difference
to the general that they were the civilian scientists heading Project
Number. The general was over-all head, and he so considered himself at
every waking moment.
He said, "Now square roots are fine. I can't do them myself
and I don't understand the methods, but they're fine. Still, the
project will not be sidetracked into what some of you call the
fundamentals. You can play with graphitics any way you want to after
the war is over, but right now we have specific and very practical
problems to solve."
In a far corner Technician Aub listened with painful attention.
He was no longer a technician, of course, having been relieved of his
duties and assigned to the project, with a fine-sounding title and
good pay. But, of course, the social distinction remained, and the
highly placed scientific leaders could never bring themselves to
admit him to their ranks on a footing of equality. Nor, to do Aub
justice, did he, himself, wish it. He was as uncomfortable with them
as they with him.
The general was saying, "Our goal is a simple one, gentlemen
---the replacement of the computer. A ship that can navigate space
without a computer on board can be constructed in one fifth the time
and at one tenth the expense of a computer-laden ship. We could build
fleets five times, ten times, as great as Deneb could if we could but
eliminate the computer.
"And I see something even beyond this. It may be fantastic
now, a mere dream, but in the future I see the manned missile!"
There was an instant murmur from the audience.
The general drove on. "At the present time our chief
bottleneck is the fact that missiles are limited in intelligence.
The computer controlling them can only be so large, and for that
reason they can meet the changing nature of anti-missile defenses
in an unsatisfactory way. Few missiles, if any, accomplish their
goal, and missile warfare is coming to a dead end, for the enemy,
fortunately, as well as for ourselves.
"On the other hand, a missile with a man or two within,
controlling flight by graphitics, would be lighter, more mobile,
more intelligent. It would give us a lead that might well mean the
margin of victory. Besides which, gentlemen, the exigencies of war
compel us to remember one thing. A man is much more dispensable than
a computer. Manned missiles could be launched in numbers and under
circumstances that no good general would care to undertake as far as
computer-directed missiles are concerned . . ."
He said much more, but Technician Aub did not wait.
Technician Aub, in the privacy of his quarters, labored long
over the note he was leaving behind. It read finally as follows:
"When I began the study of what is now called graphitics, it
was no more than a hobby. I saw no more in it than an interesting
amusement, an exercise of mind.
"When Project Number began, I thought that others were wiser
than I, that graphitics might be put to practical use as a benefit to
mankind, to aid in the production of really practical
mass-transference devices perhaps. But now I see it is to be used only
for death and destruction.
"I cannot face the responsibility involved in having invented
He then deliberately turned the focus of a protein depolarizer
on himself and fell instantly and painlessly dead.
They stood over the grave of the little technician while
tribute was paid to the greatness of his discovery.
Programmer Shuman bowed his head along with the rest of them
but remained unmoved. The technician had done his share and was no
longer needed, after all. He might have started graphitics, but now
that it had started, it would carry on by itself overwhelmingly,
triumphantly, until manned missiles were possible with who knew what
Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is
sixty-three, and I don't need a computer to tell me so. The computer
is in my own head.
And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.