This piece originally appeared in Plough.
The machines will try to eat us all.
At least, that’s what Frank Herbert saw. In his famed 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune, one of the foundational myths is that of the Butlerian jihad, a war between man and the “thinking machines” that endeavored to replace humanity. Though his book is set thousands of years after this bloody conflict, the religious injunction “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind” echoes through the novel, with profound implications for the social, political, and technological order that governs Herbert’s universe.
The war’s name is a nod to Samuel Butler’s 1872 Victorian satire Erewhon, an eerily prophetic work that contains a lengthy disquisition – “The Book of the Machine” – on the idea that machines may develop broad intelligence. Butler’s Erewhonians, a technologically advanced people, create ex nihilo a “mechanical kingdom”:
We are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organization; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying, by all sorts of ingenious contrivances, that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.