Zim: Computer, give me all the information on the Eff Bee Eye!
Computer: The F.B.I is a government law enforcement agency.
Computer: Insufficient data.
Zim: Insufficient data? Can't you just make an educated guess?
Computer: Okay... umm... Founded in 1492 by... uh, demons? ... the F.B.I is a crack law enforcement agency designed to... uh... I dunno... fight aliens?
These days it's commonplace to go straight to Google when you have a question, and this was true in fiction even before there was
a Google. Or an Internet
, for that matter. When in need of plot critical Exposition
characters will frequently find a computer and use it to fill the role of Mr. Exposition
. They may type their questions and read answers on a screen, but typically it's a computer with a voice
or not) and an ability to answer freeform questions in plain spoken English. Because of these traits the computer will frequently at least be a Magical Computer
and possibly even a true Artificial Intelligence
The Expositron 9000
will give one of three answers to whatever question it's given: an accurate answer
based on available data and number crunching, a Bat Deduction
that is unerringly accurate despite lack of data ... or admitting that it lacks the info needed to answer the question. That said, it may still make amazingly accurate predictions based on what limited data it does
have. However it's often the case that the computer's sensors have already recorded all the relevant information needed or it already had files on the topic. This is done to avoid boring the audience and dragging the plot, though the character asking the computer may bring data they've recorded themselves to show some effort. Because of this accuracy, a computer giving a flat out wrong answer would be a subversion.
- HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact can be considered a partial Trope Namer. Just don't assume he's telling you everything though.
- When Captain Dallas tried to get information out of Mother (the Nostromo's computer) about the title monster he got the "Insufficient Data" type response.
Dallas: Request evaluation of current procedures to terminate alien
Mother: Unable To Compute
Dallas: Request options for possible procedure
Mother: Available Data Insufficient
Dallas: What are my chances?
Mother: Does Not Compute
- When Ripley tried the same thing later, Mother's first response was just as unhelpful but Ripley got lucky and got some Accurate Answers.
- In The Thing (1982), Blair asks the base computer what The Thing would do if it escapes out of the Arctic, and it projects total global infection around two years.
- In Sunshine the cast asked the computer, Icarus, whether their plan to dump a dark matter bomb into the sun to reignite it would work. Which it said would be impossible to compute as the variables increase too quickly the closer the simulation got to the sun. Because of this uncertainty they decide to make a detour and get the bomb from the Ghost Ship Icarus 1 and double their chances.
- In The Fly (1986 with Jeff Goldblum), once Dr. Brundle realizes he's not really 100% human any more he asks the computer what's going on, and it exposits that he's fused with fly DNA and will eventually mutate into a hideous creature.
- Isaac Asimov's short story "The Last Question" is about humans building increasingly advanced computers and asking them whether the heat death of the universe can be reversed. The computers always say "There is insufficient data for a meaningful answer." After the universe has ended, when the only thing left existing is the single cosmic-scale computer with its circuitry in hyperspace, it discovers how to become God and create the next universe.
- Hex, the literal Magical Computer from the Discworld books, occasionally serves this role in both the "completely accurate" and "insufficient data" forms so the Unseen University faculty don't have to do too much actual thinking. In the latter case, this is usually amid messages along the lines of "++DIVIDE BY CUCUMBER ERROR. PLEASE REINSTALL UNIVERSE AND REBOOT++." At one point Hex is asked to hypothesize, and while initially reluctant does so accurately under threat of being hit with a mallet.
- Babylon 5: Commander Sinclair did this once in an early episode. He started with a straightforward keyword search. The computer gives him some useful data. Eventually he accidentally asks a rhetorical question to which the computer gives the standard "Unknown" response.
- Star Trek did this on a regular basis. One particularly good example was in "Wolf in the Fold", where a series of questions answered by the computer allowed the Enterprise crew to identify which person Jack the Ripper was masquerading as.
- Due to its longer run, Star Trek: The Next Generation did this even more, though generally in inverse proportion to the technical ability of the asker. In other words, the worse your questions were, the smarter the computer got.
- Star Trek: Voyager: This was practically Captain Janeway's Catch Phrase.
Computer: Insufficent data.
Janeway: Computer, hypothesize.
Computer: [Very detailed explanation, which was usually right.]
- Done often on Time Trax with Lambert asking SELMA, his credit-card-sized computer programmed with all knowledge of the 20th century, to extrapolate from known data into unknown territory. She is always reluctant to do this and gives percentages of how right she might be.
- In episode 43 of Taiyou Sentai Sun Vulcan, the villains create and hand out devices that can answer any question, with the hope of making local kids rely on them for all their knowledge and become too stupid to resist them as a result. They end up being Hoist By Their Own Petard as Vul Eagle manages to get one of the devices and uses it to find where the villains are hiding. (However, when he tries it again later, it doesn't work because the villains have put up a shield around their van.)
- In Paranoia, a character with the Data Analysis skill can ask Friend Computer to analyze the situation. He probably doesn't have a high enough clearance to be told the answer, but he can still ask.
- Mass Effect 2: In addition to being a Do Anything AI, EDI is this. Whenever anyone wants plot-relevant information, they just need to ask.
- Happens in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse of all places where a series of lights coming from Mars is deduced by the Mousekadoer to be a distress signal and/or invitation.
- Courage the Cowardly Dog did this a lot, though Courage would type in the questions, despite the fact that he would regularly speak to the audience.
- In Homestar Runner, Strong Bad's computers have a tendency for this.
- Invader Zim expects his secret base's computer to be this, but as the page quote indicates, its information is not always complete (or accurate).
- This was Teletraan One's (and later, Teletraan Two's) job on The Transformers.