Kompoo – a Professor Shonku story by Satyajit Ray

Posted by Dev Baul - 12/05/21 at 04:05 pm

For the uninitiated, Professor Shonku is a fictional scientist created by Satyajit Ray (1921–1992) in a series of Bengali science fiction books published from 1965 onward. Kompoo a story written in the early 70s is about a computer created by Shonku. When I read it again recently it read like a product catalog of an OK Google’ or an ‘Amazon Alexa’ device – a very accurate prophecy made 40 years ago !!

Giving below an inept translation done by me of an extract from the story …..


When two Japanese assistants entered the stage with Kompoo, the auditorium reverberated with an appreciative buzz from the audience, as they saw the beautiful platinum-clad orb.

That a machine capable of answering 500 million questions would be 1.5 times the size of a football; that it would weigh only forty two kg; that it would not look like a machine – was beyond anybody’s imagination.

In this age of transistors and micro-miniaturization, even the most complex machine need not be big in size. Fifty years ago could anyone have thought that in future all the components of a radio could be fitted into a wristwatch!

At this point, it would be appropriate to note that our computer does not solve complicated mathematical problems. Its job is to answer those questions, answers to which are found in encyclopedias. Kompoo’s other special ability is that it answers verbally in a shrill humanoid voice. Before asking a question one would need to speak out the code ‘1313137’ to get Kompoo started <does this remind you of ’ok google’ or the ‘Alexa wake word’ >. After this one would get an instant answer to the asked question. The questions should be such that can be answered in brief and precise terms. Despite the forewarning, a journalist from the Philippines ended up asking Kompoo to comment on ancient Chinese civilization. Obviously, Kompoo kept silent, but when the same journalist asked specific questions regarding ancient Chinese dynasties like Tang, Ming, Han, Song – Kompoo reeled off the answers in a flash.

Apart from information dissemination, Kompoo also has a fine logical reasoning ability. A conversation between Nigerian naturalist Dr Solomon and Kompoo aptly demonstrates this trait.

Dr. Solomon – ‘Where would a baby baboon be safe

     a) In front of a hungry deer or

     b) In front of a hungry chimpanzee’  

Kompoo – ‘hungry deer’
  Dr. Solomon – ‘why?’
  Kompoo –‘chimpanzees are occasional meat-eaters.’

Now, this is a recently acquired knowledge – till a few years ago it was believed that all primates were vegetarians. < Surely this interaction would pass the strictest Turing test !> [1]


[1]The Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

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2 Responses to “Kompoo – a Professor Shonku story by Satyajit Ray”

  1. Jayant Bhattacharjee says:
    May 19th, 2022 at 3:31 pm

    This was interesting; especially the question & answer.
    Keep travelling Dev. Enjoy the journey and as a co-traveller – i will enjoy too.

  2. Samiran Saha says:
    August 22nd, 2022 at 11:37 pm

    My interest in Prof Shonku has been rekindled. Seems like I have to go through the stories yet again. Thanks

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