Is It Time for the Butlerian Jihad?

Is It Time for the Butlerian Jihad?
(AP Photo/Fabian Bimmer)

Just before I departed for vacation to sit on the edge of the ocean with a never-ending Mai Tai in my hand, my wife and I slipped off to see the latest incarnation of Dune. I have been a Dune fan for years, having read most of the book in my teens during what seemed to be an interminable layover at JFK long ago. I sat though the Lynch version, which looked like Fashion Week on Uranus, and later Syfy’’s treatment, which was not bad, all things considered, although a bit over the top in places. The Denis Villeneuve offering was visually stunning, and despite my fears from the trailer that Paul Atreides would be portrayed as whiny Emo-boy, the cast delivered, IMHO.

Of course, the movie did not cover everything in the novel, but how could it? My dog-eared paperback is a hefty little book in and of itself, and there is no way Villeneuve could have done the expository work needed to fully flesh out the mythos in the time allotted to him. Hopefully, he can cover more ground in the sequel. Like the original Star Wars (I will not call it Episode IV, so just get over that) and to a lesser extent Lord of the Rings, the reader/viewer is plopped down in the middle of the narrative, which itself is driven by a rich and complex backstory.

Related: A Modest Proposal for Dealing with Star Wars VII-IX

In Dune, part of the backstory is the Butlerian Jihad, a war between man and thinking machines that takes place thousands of years before the opening of the novel. In that war, machines, which have gained the upper hand due to humanity’s dependence on them, have turned on their creators and have begun a quest for dominance. Mankind is eventually victorious with the two maxims emerging: “Man shall not be replaced” and later, “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

The idea of the Butlerian Jihad was rolling around in my head for a while prior to my night at the flicks. Most recently I got to thinking about it after the announcement that China had created a robotic nurse named Grace, which can take temperatures and pulses, assist with diagnoses, and even engage patients in some form of conversation. Current nurses are in no danger of being replaced by Grace just yet. AI caregivers lack the intuition, judgment, and experience to deliver quality patient care. But one wonders how long that will last. Robots are delivering meals to nursing home residents in Austin to make up for the shortfall in workers. The last time I was in a McDonald’s, I spent more time interfacing with the automated kiosk than I did with the woman who handed me my food, and robotic fry-cooks are already showing up in some fast-food outlets.

On an even darker note, a company called Ghost Robotics has added sniper rifles to robotic dogs, and General Dynamics is rolling out a line of robotic tanks.  How will such machines know when to strike and when to disengage? How sound are the algorithms driving these things? It’s not as if you can take your tank to Circuit City, or simply reboot your robotic sniper dog before it takes out a village of non-combatants. As Robert Spencer recently pointed out, the devices designed for our convenience are keeping tabs on us. The algorithms on social media try to influence everything from our menu choices to our vaccination status. As the gearheads press on making more and more sophisticated AI programs, the day the machines begin to merely tolerate us before deciding that we are more a nuisance than anything else may not be that far off.

Even if the day that our cybernetic overlords announce their dominance never comes, chances are that as AI advances it will chip away at the lower echelons of society before anything else, and what good is state-of-the-art technology if it only benefits a handful of elites? What good is a robotic fry-flipper if one cannot afford to buy fries?

Before we enter the great metaverse proposed by the likes of Zuckerberg, isn’t it worth at least discussing just how much of ourselves we are willing to have deleted?