a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine (2017)
Greg Egan
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This story is funnier and less mathematical than most of Greg Egan's writing. It concerns the spontaneous evolution of artificial intelligence within the global computer network. But, rather than destroying the human race Terminator-style, this AI chooses entertainingly bizarre ways to interact with us.

Despite the reference to Alan Turing in the title the main plot has very little mathematics in it. Math arises only in one minor subplot where a character who has eschewed all technology attempts to convince his houseguest (whose wife has secretly snuck a cellphone into their house) that he has found evidence of a "super-intelligence" on the Internet:

(quoted from The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine)

“And why exactly have we come into this particular room?” Unless he knew about Janice's bra-phone, the dining room was every bit as low-tech as this one.

“To show you the proof.”

Callum unlocked a filing cabinet and took out a laminated sheet of paper. Apparently it predated the great technology purge: it was a printout of a web page, complete with URL at the top. Dan bit his lip; his brother-in-law, with a master's degree in pharmacology, believed SkyNet had risen because the internet told him?

Callum offered the page to Dan for closer inspection. It contained a few lines of mathematics: first stating that x was equal to some horrendously large integer, then that y was equal to another, similarly huge number, and finally that a complicated formula that mentioned x and y, as well as several Greek letters that Dan had no context to interpret, yielded . . . a third large number.

“Did a computer somewhere do arithmetic? I think that's been known to happen before.”

“Not like this,” Callum insisted. “If you check it, the answer is correct.”

“I'll take your word for that. But again, so what?”

“Translate the result into text, interpreting it as sixteen-bit Unicode. It says: ‘I am the eschaton, come to rule over you.' ”

“That's very clever, but when my uncle was in high school in the seventies he swapped the punched cards in the computing club so the printout came back from the university mainframe spelling SHIT in giant letters that filled the page. And even I could do the calculator trick where you turn the result upside down and it spells ‘boobies.' ”

Callum pointed to the third line on the sheet. “That formula is a one-way function. It ought to take longer than the age of the Universe for any computer in the world to find the x and y that yield a particular output. Checking the result is easy; I've done it with pen and paper in two weeks. But working backward from the message you want to deliver ought to be impossible, even with a quantum computer.”

Dan pondered this. “Says who?”

“It's a well-known result. Any half-decent mathematician will confirm what I'm saying.”

Dan decides to verify Callum's claim and consults a mathematician. He stops a number theorist walking back from class at the nearby university, but she does not seem to agree with Callum's conclusion:

(quoted from The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine)

“So what's the story here?” Dan pressed her, gesturing at the magic formula.

“Until about a year ago, it did seem highly likely that this was a one-way function. But then there was a paper by a group in Delhi proving a nice result in a related subject — which incidentally meant that this function was efficiently invertible. If you pick the output that you want to produce, you can actually find an x and y in quadratic time.”

Don't worry, that's not a "spoiler". This happens relatively early in the story and there's a lot more going on that make it worth reading, like the part about pornographic cake decorations, for example.

This story was originally published in Asimov's Magazine in November/December 2017 and was recently republished in Egan's anthology Instantiation.

Buy this work of mathematical fiction and read reviews at logo
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
  2. Void Star by Zachary Mason
  3. The Fear Index by Robert Harris
  4. The Center of the Universe by Alex Kasman
  5. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
  6. The Turing Option by Harry Harrison / Marvin Minksy
  7. Freemium by Louis Evans
  8. Euler's Equation by Neil Hudson
  9. The Zero Theorem by Pat Rushin (screenplay) / Terry Gilliam (director)
  10. Summer Wars by Mamoru Hosoda (Director)
Ratings for The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)

GenreHumorous, Science Fiction,
MotifFemale Mathematicians,
TopicComputers/Cryptography, Algebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,
MediumShort Stories,

Home All New Browse Search About

Exciting News: The total number of works of mathematical fiction listed in this database recently reached a milestone. The 1,500th entry is The Man of Forty Crowns by Voltaire. Thanks to Vijay Fafat for writing the summary of that work (and so many others). I am also grateful to everyone who has contributed to this website. Heck, I'm grateful to everyone who visited the site. Thank you!

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)