Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Human Computer

Byter Maureen sent me the following email: 

I think this piece In Memoriam would make a good subject for bytes. How did she do it? 

Best regards, 


In Memoriam  
Shakuntala Devi was born in Bangalore, India, to an orthodox priestly Kannada Brahmin family. Her father rebelled against becoming a temple priest and instead joined a circus, where he worked as a trapeze and tightrope performer, and later as a lion tamer and a human cannonball. Shakuntala Devi was only about three years old when, playing cards, her father discover her amazing ability at number crunching.  
Despite having had no formal education, in 1977 in the USA she competed against a computer to see who could find the cube root of 188138517 faster; Shakuntala won.  
Later, she was asked to calculate the 23rd root of a 201-digit number; she answered in 50 seconds. Her answer—546,372,891—was confirmed by calculations done at the U.S. Bureau of Standards by the Univac 1101 computer, for which a special program had to be written to perform such a large calculation. 
On June 18, 1980, she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779 picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London. She correctly answered 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 in 28 seconds - again, she was 20 seconds faster than a computer. 
Ms Devi died last week at age of 83. 

Thanks Mazza. 

This is from another report: 

Shakuntala Devi, who has died aged 83, lacked any formal education but possessed such an extraordinary ability to complete the most complex mathematical calculations in double-quick time that she became known as ''the human computer''. 

As India's most remarkable mathematical prodigy, she had astounded friends and family with her numerical prowess since childhood. She once calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in her head in less than a minute, and in June 1980, at Imperial College, London, accurately multiplied two random 13-digit numbers in a few seconds, a feat that earned her a place in the Guinness Book of Records. 

Her ability to solve complicated arithmetical problems with apparent ease and astonishing speed had stunned observers since the 1970s, when her unexplained brain power made even sophisticated digital devices of the day seem inadequate by comparison. Witty and sharp-minded, she possessed exceptional powers of retention and appeared to harness the power of several mnemonic devices in her brain. 

In 1988 she visited the US, where the educational psychologist Professor Arthur Jensen tried to unlock the secret of her abilities. At Stanford University he monitored her performance in several tasks involving large numbers and subjected her to a series of tests. 

When volunteers wrote problems on a blackboard, Shakuntala Devi would turn around, stare at the problem and come up with the right answer, always in less than a minute. According to Jensen, in a research study published in the journal Intelligence in 1990: ''Devi solved most of the problems faster than I was able to copy them in my notebook.''  
Jensen set her two problems, the cube root of 61,629,875, and the seventh root of 170,859,375. Shakuntala Devi gave the correct answers - 395 and 15 - even before Jensen's wife could start the stopwatch. 

The study explored whether Shakuntala Devi's feats derived from some innate ability to manipulate large numbers or from practice. Her reaction times on simple cognitive tasks such as picking the odd man out were unexceptional, and contrasted sharply with her speed at arithmetical calculations. 

Jensen suggested that she perceived large numbers differently from others. ''For a calculating prodigy like Devi, the manipulation of numbers is apparently like a native language, whereas for most of us, arithmetic calculation is at best like the foreign language we learnt at school,'' he wrote. 

Shakuntala Devi was born on November 4, 1929, in Bangalore. Her father, refusing to follow the family priestly tradition, became a circus performer. 

When she was three, Shakuntala began exhibiting precocious skill with numbers, and by the time she was five, could calculate cube roots. A year later she amazed mathematicians at Mysore University with her ability to solve complex mathematical problems in her head. But she had no conventional schooling, mainly on account of her father's travels with the circus. 

While growing up in a run-down area of Bangalore, Shakuntala was able to retain large numbers of digits in her memory. This singular talent came to wider attention when she beat one of the world's fastest computers by 10 seconds in a complicated calculation. 

A daughter survives her. 

An appreciation of the enormity of her talent is lessened by the sheer size of the numbers, by the inability of our minds to comprehend the numbers involved. Stalin famously said that the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic. 

I am hopeless at maths, always have been, hated it in high school. These days pushing buttons on a calculator occasionally is the extent of my advanced maths. Without a calculator I am like the primitive tribes that regard everything after 3 as “many”. 

Nonetheless, I am impressed by the late Ms Devi, dubbed the Human Computer. 

If the mind can do something like that, whether because wires are crossed or for some other unknown cause, what can it achieve if unlocked?

Yet minds also come up with 9/11, Boston bombings, the Cleveland captive girls . . . 

Sad in so many ways.


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