Every few weeks, a story about the terrifying potential of artificial intelligence (AI) makes the rounds on the internet.
2023 alone saw continued widespread anxiety around AI taking our jobs, fears about AI’s ingrained bias and prejudices, and the so-called godfather of AI, Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, leaving his position at Google over concerns about AI’s accelerating development.
But one possible answer to the AI dilemma exists within the sweeping backstory of one of history’s most revered science fiction stories. In 1965, Frank Herbert released Dune. Hidden within the intrigue, spice, and sandworms, Herbert wrote about how mankind gained control over the “thinking machines”—by wiping them all out.
AI and ‘The Great Revolt’
10,000 years before Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides (or Kyle MacLachlan’s Paul, depending on your age) arrived on the feudal desert planet of Arrakis, another large-scale space saga had already taken place in the Dune universe.
Beginning in 201 BG (‘Before Guild’—before the Spacing Guild monopolized space travel) and lasting almost 100 years, humankind waged war against robots, computers, sentient thinking machines, and those that controlled them. This became known as ‘The Butlerian Jihad’ or ‘The Great Revolt’.
Once the dust had settled, with humanity victorious and the machines and their masters destroyed, one absolute commandment became law throughout the universe: Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.
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AI: false information—false results
The hysteria over sentient machines in the Dune universe is exaggerated, and we are far from needing to organize a revolt against Roombas and ChatGPT. But the fear of being replaced by machines is very real.
Investment bank Goldman Sachs estimated that AI could replace 300 million jobs, although it tempered fears by suggesting the technology could lead to new roles and increased productivity.
Another legitimate fear is of one group using this technology to gain or maintain control over another. You only need to look at the way inherently racist facial recognition technology is being harnessed by police forces across the world to see that this technology could become a tool of oppression. The idea is far from science fiction.
However, as proven in Dune, an outright ban on the technology would be a double-edged crysknife.
To counterfeit a human mind
In the vacuum created by the destroyed thinking machines, humankind in the Dune universe had to seek other avenues to maintain its quality of life. Firstly, without machines to perform complex calculations, Mentats were developed. These mutated human beings—capable of processing large amounts of data and interpreting body language and speech—were useful political tools, limited only by their own morals and ethics.
A key use of computers was in transportation. So, after the Revolt, space travel became impossible, as humans simply could not navigate the intricacies of interdimensional travel to the same degree as a machine. This led to the rise of Spacing Guild Navigators, grotesque pilots who use the drug “spice” to expand their awareness and navigate from planet to planet.
Elsewhere in the time of Paul Atreides and his ancestors, the Ixians and the Tleilaxu both created fantastical machinery that pushed the boundaries of what was considered a “thinking machine,” potentially ignoring the law laid out by the Butlerian Jihad.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer
So, what can we learn from the esoteric writings of Frank Herbert? The above consequences suggest that a total ban on AI would prove pointless as the technology would resurface in one form or another. Ultimately, humankind will always push for improvement, and it is unwilling to give up the comfort it (broadly) enjoys.
One more realistic answer lies in Dune’s “Litany Against Fear.” The first lines read: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear.” And perhaps this is how we should approach AI, not with fear but with caution and curiosity. Yes, the technology has the potential to cause harm, but when used properly, it could also enable significant advances in medicine and healthcare and significantly improve the quality of life for millions.
Like the Great Revolt, perhaps we should aim our concern not at the technology itself but at the people best placed to misuse it, the “bad actors” described by Dr Hinton. Of course, stronger regulations will help, but while there are forces out there willing to exploit the technology, fear will remain.