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Michelangelo’s Chisel

“Brilliant,” said a recently tenured English Literature professor and twice Guggenheim nominee in the third row without looking up from her half marked stack of essays on Shakespeare’s portrayal of romantic love in Tristan And Isulet. “Just brilliant,” she repeated, underlining an unsupported summarizing statement in red pencil.

“Well well, my my,” condescended the Renowned Computer Scientist, “You certainly speak the lingo. No slight on the potential of human ingenuity, but there are physical, God given limitations to circuitry and electricity. And we are nearing these limits. This university’s new state-of-the-art IBM 360, for example, which occupies the entire basement of the Math building, is only capable of forty megaflops.” He chortled and shook his head at this great irony. “For the unwashed here, that means forty-million floating point operations per second. Think how long it might take you to calculate the product of… oh, say… 2.71828183 divided by 3.14159625”—pausing then for the appreciative guffaws of all those who’d caught his mathematical allusions—“with a pencil and paper. Perhaps a minute if you are quick? Modern super-computers can perform forty million such operations per second.” His chest swelled with air and pride. “But, accepting that within a few decades machines will somehow become a thousand times faster, I’d say the human—Garry is it?—wins again. Because no matter how fast a calculator calculates, it’s still a calculator.” Regressing to his days as a clever student, he’d raised his hand to extrapolate this last, and now glowed with satisfaction.

My hands were balled in fists as I stepped over a first year Iraqi exchange student wearing a sharp three-piece suit and gold watch who’d be killed by a car bomb in 2007 outside a mosque in Dakok in what I now realized was my downwards trek to the podium. “First,” I said, “computers break the petaflop barrier in 2007. For the”—and here I could not resist a slightly sarcastic tone—“unwashed, that’s a million billion, a billion times faster than today. And just so you know”—and here I’m embarrassed to say my tone grew even more acerbic—“God imposed no limits.”

“Impossible!” said the Renowned Computer Scientist without conviction. “Inconceivable! Even the fictitious Enterprise’s twenty-third century optical fantasy computer operates only in the mid teraflop range.”

“But you’re right about the chess match,” I allowed. “Kasparov wins again.”

“Ah ha. Just so.”

“But he loses the first game. And then draws two others. And although he describes the computer’s play as weird, inefficient and inflexible and speculates he still has a few years left, he does admit, ‘I could feel a new kind of intelligence across the table.’” At this, the room seemed to still, the only sound being the ubiquitous gurgling of hungry stomachs and the latent hum of amplifiers within the space’s hollow acoustics in which my voice had become not my own, but like hearing yourself speak when you are weeping or terrified, a detachment exacerbated by the mounting realization that the words were not mine either.

By now, most in the Great Lecture Hall had turned to face me. Furrowed brows and gaping mouths. A bowl of flowers on twisted stems. A third year Engineering student who’d been using a slide rule to plot the upward curve of consciousness on graph paper from the few numbers I’d spoken and who would die in 2001 along with several thousand others in the New York World Trade Center Complex’s demolition’s call to arms listed to his left to let me pass. Others followed suit, a sea of bodies leaning, shifting or changing seats, parting that I should make my way forward.

“Fine,” said The Renowned Computer Scientist, throwing up his hands as if at gunpoint. “Okay, I’ll humor you. Does the computer win in a few years?”

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1 Redstone Science Fiction #2, July 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 07.01.10 at 12:58 am }

[…] Michelangelo’s Chisel by Christopher […]

2 The Great Geek Manual » Free Fiction Round-Up: July 5, 2010 { 07.06.10 at 4:03 pm }

[…] “Michelangelo’s Chisel” by Christopher Miller at RedStone Science […]

3 Matthew Sanborn Smith { 07.07.10 at 12:59 am }

Great story. I loved that everyone in the story bought into that future. Thanks!

4 Christopher { 07.08.10 at 8:19 am }

Thank you, Matthew. For reading and for your kind remarks.

Thank you too, Sarah, for your complimentary remarks regarding the piece over in your essay thread.

5 Heating Up | The Blog at GateTree { 07.09.10 at 9:35 pm }

[…] us the traffic push we needed. The stories we published are quite good. I love the weirdness of Michelangelo’s Chisel and the clever metafiction of Elevator Episodes in Seven Genres. Quality essays and our science […]

6 J.R. MacLean { 09.01.10 at 7:41 am }

Nice work, Chris. Enjoyed it thoroughly.