Trying to remember a story I read some years ago. Summary: IBM came up with a computer that could answer any question put to it. The President asks it a question which it refuses to answer. Prez sends for IBM sysprog who tries to fix the machine, but can't until he knows what question it was asked. Prez refuses to reveal his question at first, finally admits he asked how he could consolidate his hold on power. Sysprog makes one modification (spoiler:

he removes the sign reading "THINK" which IBM used to hang in every room in their plant)

and the question is answered:

"Find a b@mb in the White House; spend the remainder of your term looking for a second one"

I was wondering if this sounds familiar to anyone. I have a vague feeling that it's Asimov or someone from his generation. I especially wanted the actual wording of the computer's answer, given the current post-9/11 mindset.


You have some of the details wrong but the story is “The Nail and the Oracle” by Theodore Sturgeon.

Here is what Paul Kincaid says about the story in his review of the collection of the same name:

"The Nail and the Oracle", for instance, appeared in 1965, but you will search it in vain for any note of new wave sensibility; rather this contrived confrontation between three power-hungry men and an all-knowing computer reads like second-rate Asimov from ten years earlier, complete with clumsy twist ending.

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  • This makes sense. I definitely remember reading one of the anthologies which list this in the contents (#45399). Also vaguely remember the book's binding coming apart in my hands when I opened it... Have to track that down now. Thanks. – Shalom Sep 4 '11 at 3:29

Well, this doesn't fit your spoilers, but it does fit the title.... If it seems right, you might look to see if you are blending two stories in your head.. I do it all the time :)

Anyway, Asimov, wrote Key Item, where Multivac was the huge computer that could solve all questions... but wasn't answering..

The solution?

Someone just needed to say 'Please.'

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  • That wasn't it, though. The punch line of the whole story was when the protagonist removed the sign; I remember there was wording about how the sign was within sight of the computer's visual pickup. – Shalom Aug 24 '11 at 2:38
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    Asimov has lots of other stories where a computer refuses to answer a question for which he knows the answer. In Liar, a robot refuses to tell the secret why he became telepathic. In Escape, the brain refuses to tell whether the hyperjump will harm the pilots of the first faster-than-light spaceship. In The evitable conflict, the machine refuses to tell the reason for the errors he has apparently made in controlling the economy of the world. – b_jonas Jun 2 '12 at 21:45
  • Oh, sure; it was not an uncommon theme for him -- after creating the famous three laws, he often explores places where they don't apply the way people think they do. Obedience is secondary to protecting man, and the more a machine understands how a man can be harmed, the more it takes precedence, often including a mandate to not explain. Even worse, the question of what constitutes 'man' comes up in the Robot book.. And then there's the 'zeroth' law... But Key Item was the closest fit I could find :) – K-H-W Jun 2 '12 at 22:18

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