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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 3

Searching for Easy Answers to Hard Computational Questions

Whether or not machines can quickly answer yes-or-no questions could affect everything from national security to the limits of human knowledge

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On a snowy day in Princeton, N.J., in March 1956, a short, owlish-looking man named Kurt Gödel wrote his last letter to a dying friend. Gödel addressed John von Neumann formally even though the two had known each other for decades as colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Both men were mathematical geniuses, instrumental in establishing the U.S.'s scientific and military supremacy in the years after World War II. Now, however, von Neumann had cancer, and there was little that even a genius like Gödel could do except express a few overoptimistic pleasantries and then change the subject:

Dear Mr. von Neumann:

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