Shakuntala Devi: The Human Computer

  • 08 May 2019

The daughter of an improvised circus performer in South India, Shakuntala Devi had been amazing her family with her prodigious skill since she was very young. Her father was said to have spotted her genius when he play card games with three year old Devi.

When she kept winning, he initially thought she was cheating but quickly realized that the toddler won by memorising the card numbers and sequences as they play.

Her ability to solve even the most complicated mathematical calculations without any calculation device astounded many people especially since she did not receive any formal education.

Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, took an interest in her abilities and wrote a paper on her that was published in the academic journal 'Intelligence'. In 1955, she appeared on a BBC show to solve a complex math problem. She solved it within seconds but was told that her answer was incorrect. The answer was rechecked and was revealed that Devi's answer was indeed correct. She was subsequently called the 'Human Computer'.

In 1977, she visited the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, USA and was asked to calculate the 23rd root of a 201-digit number, which she solved in 50 seconds. It had taken four minutes for a professor to write the problem on the board, and it took more than a minute for a Univac computer to solve it.

Shakuntala Devi is best remembered for demonstrating the multiplication of two randomly picked 13-digit numbers-7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779 on 18 June 1980. She correctly gave the answer as 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 in 28 seconds. This earned her a place in the 'Guinness Book of Records' in 1982.

Photo Source: The Better India

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