I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

Some thoughts on the Butlerian Jihad

2015-07-21 by Nick S., tagged as artificial intelligence, employment

Continuing to think about automation and employment while constructing my last entry, I recalled the "Butlerian Jihad" that Frank Herbert imagines in the history of Dune (1965). In the far distant future in which the novel is set, the Jihad has resulted in a ban on machines that replicate human mental functions. This ban manifests itself in Dune in form of human "mentats" trained to perform the computational work that we now associate with machines.

It's been some time since I read Dune, and I don't remember why the Butlerians went on their Jihad, or if Herbert gives a reason at all. But if they feared that thinking machines might make humans redundant, or at least spawn the monumental inequality envisaged by thinkers like Tyler Cowen and Eryk Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, could the Butlerians have a point? I imagine that orthodox economists and technologists, including those I've just mentioned, would simply dismiss the Butlerians as a form of Luddite. But why should we accept machines if they're not doing us any good?

Part of the problem with any such jihad, aside from the violence associated with it in the novels, is that what makes us human is not so clear-cut or obvious as is traditionally presumed. Evolutionary biology argues that we are not so different from other animals, work in artificial intelligence is continually re-drawing the line between computation and what we think of as "intelligent", and neurologists are yet to identify a soul. The introduction of mentats illustrates the computational part of the difficulty: in ridding the galaxy of machines with human-like capabilities, the Butlerians introduced a need for humans with machine-like capabilities. Brynjolfsson and McAfee (I think) also make the point that it isn't just in mental powers that humans distinguish themselves machines: humans remain better at tasks requiring fine manual dexterity, meaning that robots aren't yet ready to replace pickers and packers, masseurs, and all manner of skilled tradespeople. Any would-be Butlerians have some work to do in defining exactly what it is that they object to.

A second problem is that people differ in what they want to do themselves, and what they want automated. I enjoy making my own beer, for example, but plenty of other people are happy to buy it from a factory that can make it much more efficiently. On the other hand, I'm usually happy to have my camera choose its own settings for focus, shutter speed and the like, where I imagine a photography enthusiast might be appalled to leave such things to a machine. Should I smash breweries, or photographers smash my camera, to preserve the need for the skills that we like to exercise ourselves?

Of course I don't need to smash breweries in order to brew my own beer: I have a non-brewing-related income that leaves me with the time and resources to brew my own beer even if no one else will pay for it. This brings me back to a point I've already come to several times in thinking about automation and work: to what degree should our worth and satisfaction depend on paid employment at all? If machines allowed us to reduce the amount of work we do, freeing up more time and resources to do what we actually want to do, would we have any reason to fear the machines?