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Opinion

No Artificial Intelligence in ‘Dune’? There’s Tons of It

I planned to write a Finch movie review, but watching Finch only made me want to write about Dune. If Tom Hanks + Robot + Dog is your Venn diagram of cinematic bliss, Finch is for you. But the strange thing about Finch is that for a movie where the main character is a robot named Jeff, it has little to say about artificial intelligence, whereas the new Dune — based on a book in which AI is banned — is chock full of it.

I’d like to say that MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW, so you really shouldn’t read any further unless you’ve already watched Dune, the newest film adaptation of the 1965 book by Frank Herbert. The film, directed by Denis Villenueve is epic and brilliant, a perfect example of how to adapt a complex book, and your first viewing should be with fresh eyes.

But I’ve got an issue with the new Dune, and once you see it, it’s very hard to unsee. 

I want to talk about the absence of AI, or really its alleged absence.

In the Dune universe, AI was banned as a result of the Butlerian Jihad, which occurred 10,000 years before the events of the story. The Jihad was a Luddite crusade on a galactic scale, and its chief commandment was:

“Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of the human mind.”

That’s a pretty broad statement about what kind of technology is allowable, but the author gives us a few clues as to what this proclamation includes. The glossary in the original Dune book defines the Jihad as:

The crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots…”

Given that a basic calculator is a computer, the threshold for banned technology is pretty low, but we have a clue as to what technology is legal, because the glossary also mentions this primitive device:

“SERVOK: clock-set mechanism to perform simple tasks; one of the limited “automatic” devices permitted after the Butlerian Jihad.”

In the book, servoks appear only once, in the form of a plant-watering robot.

In the absence of computers and thinking machines, the Dune universe is populated by humans with enhanced capabilities:

  • The Bene Gesserit — a religious sect based on heightened physical and mental powers, including collective memory 
  • The Spacing Guild — whose members have a monopoly on interstellar navigation
  • Mentats — human computers “trained for supreme accomplishments of logic”

This is all very cool and fun sci-fi world-building, but here’s my issue. Machine technology that performs better than a basic calculator is everywhere in the movie version of Dune. The following are just four examples of Dune technologies that incorporate some kind of intelligence. They may not be at the cutting edge of AI, but all require more computational power than a calculator, and far more than a plant-watering robot.

 Smart cluster munitions

Dune’s opening scene depicts a Harkonnen (human-crewed) spice harvester in the moments before it comes under attack by Fremen. The Fremen open fire, and one second later the spice harvester returns fire, launching five rockets in the general direction of the Fremen. Each of the five rockets split into multiple warheads directly over the Fremen, striking them with high precision.

Artist's rendering of smart cluster munitions from the Dune world

The Harkonnen defense clearly displays automation, launching counterfire within one second of being struck, and intelligence, with the warheads seeking and striking the Fremen with high precision within three seconds of the initial incoming fire.

How is such accuracy possible? Either the harvester or the submunitions possess some form of sensing (optical, radar, sonic or thermal), and the warheads are capable of using the data to locate and strike the targets.

All of this requires computation and better-than-rudimentary intelligence…illegal in the Dune universe.

Ornithopters

Cross a helicopter with a dragonfly, and you’ve got an ornithopter. These are incredibly beautiful examples of biomechanical and industrial design, the blades vibrating to create lift, propulsion and control.

Artist's rendering of ornithopters from the Dune world

Some might say ornithopters are no more complicated than helicopters, and since early helicopters didn’t require chips or software, ‘thopters don’t either. But a helicopter is mechanically far simpler than a ‘thopter, whose vibrating blades would require fly-by-wire software to convert the pilot’s inputs into the correct blade pitch and vibration for generating lift and control of direction and speed. This is extraordinarily complex, as evidenced by current research into dragonflies (video):

Software would also be required to synchronize the blades to prevent vibration from damaging the craft itself, not to mention injuries to the passengers. Then you’ve got the absolute necessity of active noise cancellation for the passenger headsets. Helicopters are LOUD. I guarantee you ornithopters are louder.

Fly-by-wire and active noise cancellation require a lot of math, none of which can be performed by a human with a calculator in real-time. It won’t pass a Turing Test, but if it’s more than a calculator, it’s illegal in the Dune universe.

Carryalls

These aircraft carry spice harvesters to and from desert work zones. A carryall is referred to in the book as “essentially a large ‘thopter” but in the film, no blades are visible. Instead, we have craft appearing to use “suspensor” technology, which, according to the official Dune glossary, “nullifies gravity within certain limits prescribed by relative mass and energy consumption.”

Sounds like more math than a human with a calculator can do in real time. A carryall may not be a thinking machine, but it sure needs a computer to convert pilot inputs into motion, and there’s a lot of calculating to do when that motion includes having to rapidly approach and line up with a spice harvester cargo on one try, then fire off the clamps necessary for pickup, with perfect precision, then inflate the balloons to offset the weight of the harvester, just in time:

Artist's rendering of carryalls from the Dune world

Some of that could be done manually by a really good flight crew, but no crew is manually doing all of it perfectly, every time, and yet the fate of House Atreides depends on it. Carryalls may not be thinking machines, but there’s definitely some kind of flight control computer on board, which is a no-no.

Shields and intelligent shield penetrating munitions

My favorite Dune tech? The shields, which inspired the most famous line in Dune mythology:

“The slow blade penetrates the shield.”

Which is why you don’t see guns with traditional (dumb) bullets in Dune.

Shields can apparently protect people or objects of almost any size, and in the new Dune they glimmer blue when deflecting and red when pierced. It’s a gorgeous visual effect, profoundly enhancing our understanding of how and when they work.

Artist's rendering of shield technology from the Dune world

How do shields work? According to the Dune glossary, a shield is “…produced by a Holtzman generator. This field derives from Phase One of the suspensor-nullification effect.”

Not very helpful, but we can infer that a shield bracelet carries enough power to create a shield enveloping an adult-sized male, and that it can conform to a moving body in real-time.

But the definition goes further: “A shield will permit entry only to objects moving at slow speeds (depending on setting, this speed ranges from six to nine centimeters per second).”

It’s unclear how much computing is required, if any, for shields to function. Shields might just run off an ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit), which is a chip designed for a particular use, like the simple ones in digital voice recorders. I think shields fall above the clock-set mechanism of a servok, but below the threshold of a computer. It doesn’t seem shields do much calculating other than battery regulation, so shields are ok.

But what is obviously NOT ok are intelligent shield penetrating weapons, which make two big appearances when the Harkonnens ambush the Atreides on Arrakis.

The first example is when the Harkonnens drop warheads from orbit onto the Atreides fleet parked on the ground. The warheads, much like the guided cluster munitions used on the Fremen in the opening scene, appear to be smart munitions capable of sensing and striking precision targets. The Atreides ships are shielded from the warheads, which are approaching at high speed to avoid anti-aircraft fire, but just prior to deflection the warheads slow to penetrate and detonate inside the shields.

It’s a devastating scene, and the same intelligent penetrator technology is demonstrated moments later, when Jason Momoa’s character, Duncan Idaho, is fired upon with what appears to be a traditional gun. What looks like a small guided missile approaches the shielded Idaho at high-speed, then, just as it is about to penetrate, our hero flicks it away with his sword:

How much intelligence would such a penetrator need? Enough to sense and guide itself toward the target, sense the shield enveloping its target, then slow down to penetrate it. There’s computing going on, and some rudimentary intelligence. A dumb bullet this isn’t, and clearly not allowed in the post-Butlerian Jihad world.

Having analyzed the new movie more than I would have wished, I love Dune more than ever. Dune is like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony of science fiction: no matter how many times you hear it, you love it, and no interpretation is bad. They’re only different. I’ve recently watched both Dune movies and the underappreciated SyFy mini-series from 2000, and I love them all.

My takeaway isn’t that Herbert or Dune director Denis Villeneuve took unreasonable liberties with what is or isn’t AI. Herbert wrote Dune in 1965, when even rudimentary AI was fairly primitive, and Villeneuve created one of the best science fiction book adaptations ever, second only to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My Dune takeaway is that if technology is arbitrarily shackled, then all those “enhanced” humans in the Dune universe need to do a much better job picking up the slack. The mentats, Bene Gesserit, and Atreides leadership are all incompetent, failing to foresee obvious scenarios, with disastrous outcomes for all.

You don’t need enhanced mental powers to know that putting satellites in orbit will warn you of invasion, that your capital city’s shield wall shouldn’t be vulnerable to a single traitor, and that stockpiling thumpers and intelligent shield penetrators is a good idea.

But none of that is what Dune is about.

Dune is basically a story about supply chain, how to maintain it, and how to defend it. We’re wrestling with those problems today. If we haven’t solved them 10,000 years from now, we shouldn’t be banning AI, we should be demanding it.

Watch Dune again. Forget the AI. Bring fresh eyes. Think only about supply chains. I guarantee you will love it anew. If that doesn’t sound appealing, there’s always that new Tom Hanks movie, with a talking robot and dog. I just saw it the other day, but now I can’t remember its name.

Alex Roy loves driving, self-driving, and commuting in his Tesla. He is also the Director of Special Operations at Argo AI, host of the No Parking & Autonocast podcasts, editor-at-large at The Drive, founder of the Human Driving Association, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He held the Cannonball Run record from 2006-2013. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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