The Day of the Computer
by Harry Harrison (1982)
“Come in, Dr. Priece, come in!” the President of the United States said heartily, teeth shining, black hair glowing. “Glad you could make it on such short notice.”
“I dropped everything, Mr. President, when I got your message,” Priece said in dry academic tones, his smooth face as empty of expression as his voice. “How may I be of assistance?”
“Just some information, if you please. In strict confidence of course. Just between old friends. We’re alone here in the Oval Office and the recorders are turned off. I would like to ask you a few simple questions about computers. About one computer in particular. That big one you work on at the Pentagon…”
“Yes, OMNIPOTENT, that’s the one. The biggest and fastest in the world I understand. Is that true?”
Dr. Priece nodded. “It might be described in that manner. But it would be more accurate to say that it has the largest memory banks and the fastest retrieval time, coupled with VLSIC circuitry.”
“Yes, of course. You took the words right out of my mouth. So let’s say, just for the point of discussion, that if any computer is going to take over the world, why OMNIPOTENT is the one that could do it. Correct?”
The President blinked rapidly. “Would you care to explain that?”
“Of course. At the present state of computer technology it is physically impossible for a computer on its own to ‘take over the world’ as you put it. Computers do not think – yet. They must be programmed. That is they must have software written for them.”
“Yes. To explain briefly, hardware is what is left when you turn a computer’s power off. All the physical equipment, the VDU’s, memory banks, buttons, switches, all of it. Just a collection of electronic parts. Then, when you turn the power back on, you put in programs that make the hardware function. This is the ‘software’.”
“I’m with you. Correct me if I’m wrong. That computer, OMNIPOTENT, has the hardware to take over the world, but not the software. And it can’t write its own software.”
“Absolutely correct, Mr. President.”
“Then we are in agreement. Would you also agree that if someone wrote a program to take over the world, why then he could run it on that computer and take over the world?”
“No. It would take too long, be too cumbersome. After the program was written it would have to be debugged, that is checked many different ways to make sure it would work. It might take a lifetime to do that.”
“You’re not being frank with me, Dr. Priece.” The President’s voice now was cold, decisive. “You’ve been watched. You are writing that program. Admit it.”
“Yes, I started to write that program…”
“I knew it! Guard!”
The door burst open and a five-star general rushed in with a drawn automatic in his hand. Dr. Pierce was unruffled.
“I started to write that program,” he admitted. “Then I realized that if I were smart enough to write a program, and debug it, why it would be a lot easier to simply take over the world myself. There would be no need to get involved with the computer at all.”
“Execute him!” the President shouted hoarsely. “Before it is too late.”
The general stepped forward, raised the automatic carefully, aimed and squeezed the trigger. A single shot rang out.
The President slumped forward, dead.
Originally published as ‘The Day of the Scotch Computer,’ in Faircon 82 Program Book.
Note: The text above is taken from Harry Harrison’s original manuscript. The version published in the Faircon program book was rewritten to feature a Scottish protagonist, Dr. MacGregor, who was working on the SUPERSCOT computer. The ‘President’ was replaced by the ‘Prime Minister’ who was referred to as ‘madam,’ so was presumably Margaret Thatcher.