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.

Butler’s prescience bore fruit. Perhaps the most talented inventor of “ingenious contrivances” in modern history, the Hungarian Neumann János Lajos (later Anglicized to John von Neumann) entered our world just thirty-one years after Erewhon’s publication.

With no hint of irony, historians have referred to von Neumann as “the smartest man who ever lived.” By the age of six, he could converse in Ancient Greek and divide eight-figure sums in his head. His tremendous scholarly output resulted in more developments in fundamental math, physics, economics, and foreign policy than can be enumerated here.

He also played a key role in the invention of the modern computer – and in so doing, midwifed artificial intelligence from the fevered dreams of literary imagination to the brave new world of our present.

Operators in front of the MANIAC, 1952.

Here is where Chilean author Benjamín Labatut picks up the story in his latest work, The MANIAC, a triptych meditation on von Neumann’s life and legacy situated on the knife’s edge between biographical fact and speculation.

The MANIAC opens with the unsettling tale of Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest, a dear friend of Albert Einstein and collaborator with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, and other luminaries. Ehrenfest was tormented by visions of apocalypse rising from the work of his generation of quantum physicists and mathematicians – and indeed, they worked diligently to bequest the horror of nuclear Armageddon to posterity. On the eve of World War II, Ehrenfest killed his disabled son, Wassik, before committing suicide.

Labatut then turns to a fractal biography of von Neumann, told through imagined diary entries and interviews with von Neumann’s friends, wives, colleagues, rivals, and bosses. His brilliant collaborator Richard Feynman proffers reminisces, his second wife Klára Dán catalogs his boorish indignities, and tortured rival Nils Aall Barricelli broodingly remonstrates against his careless success.

Some readers may have already encountered Labatut’s peculiar, Sebaldian method in his 2021 bestseller When We Cease to Understand the World, translated from his native Spanish. In that book, Labatut conjures up studies of notable twentieth-century researchers such as Fritz Haber and Alexander Grothendieck, men who broadened humankind’s dominion over creation while unleashing destructive forces few fully comprehend. Cobbling together extensive research, Labatut traverses the psyches of these braniacs, prancing from prosaic biographical details to disturbing dream sequences in the span of a sentence. As a friend noted to me, this “works until it doesn’t.” Labatut’s weaving of fact and fiction allows for a psychological and spiritual penetration rare in the genre of popular biography, but it can leave the reader in a bewildered haze or, worse, with a sense that they’re following a contrarian down the rabbit hole of his peccadilloes.

Our dominion over reason and intellectual life superficially appears to be threatened by the machines. But agency and culpability remain ours.

Thankfully, the final section of The MANIAC – a long coda on champion Go player Lee Sedol’s 2016 defeat at the “hands” of a freakishly masterful AI – redeems the book. Here, we behold the world von Neumann wrought. In spellbinding prose, Labatut captures the civilizational anguish felt when Sedol, a celebrated 9-dan master of the ancient, cerebral Chinese game, was trounced by a computer in game after game.

Yet Sedol had a proverbial ace up his sleeve. Seventy-eight moves into game four, after he’d already been “defeated” and was merely playing for honor, Sedol baffled his opponent, AlphaGO, with a shocking, tradition-breaking, improbable by 10,000 to 1 move. One of his rivals, who was commentating on the match, yelled, “The hand of God! That is a divine move.” AlphaGO could not recover, and the onslaught of superhuman intelligence seemed, for the moment, stayed.

Sober commentators inform us that we are living in the age of artificial intelligence. Firms like DeepMind (the creator of AlphaGO), OpenAI, and Anthropic that build generative AI tools attract billions of dollars in investment, even as pundits fret about job losses, misinformation, or a Terminator-esque doomsday.

But the fundamental question is not the specter of apocalyptic risks (though, ironically, von Neumann coined the term “Mutually Assured Destruction” as he designed America’s nuclear warfare policy). Rather, it is the necessity of preserving our humanity. 

Labatut – following in a long tradition of humanistic and theological thought – equips us with a superior vernacular with which to offer a critique, a warning, a prophecy. A quotation from thirteenth-century Dutch mystic and visionary Hadewijch of Brabant serves as the epigraph. She describes “my soul’s own faculty of Reason” as “a queen, wearing a gold dress, and her dress was full of eyes, and all the eyes were transparent, like fiery flames and yet like crystals.” Her crown is filigreed with “as many crowns, one above the other, as there were eyes in her dress.” Our powers of reason bring us riches and capabilities – but they may also bring us into the pits of Gehenna.

(In)famous German intellectual Ernst Jünger writes in his novel The Glass Bees, “Technical perfection strives towards the calculable, human perfection towards the incalculable.” Artificial intelligence scares us, in part because it disrupts this dichotomy.

The models we build become “black boxes” – methodological mysteries that no human mind can fully comprehend  – even as we adjust weights, fine-tune inputs, and conduct reinforcement training runs. Worse, though these models are trained on massive chunks of the corpus of human intellectual output, the generated text and art often fall into the uncanny valley, with the feel of work produced by a golem or homunculus. We sense an inhumanity and a falsity lurking behind the friendly chatbot and our hackles go up.

“The battle of the machines is so colossal that man almost completely disappears before it,” exclaims Jünger in War as an Inner Experience. But he understands that behind these impersonal mechanisms, “only [man] gives the machines their direction and meaning…. It is he, the most dangerous, bloodthirsty, and purposeful being that the Earth has to carry.” Though he was speaking of the mechanized form of warfare that dominated Europe at the opening of the twentieth century, his insight about the nature of machines applies just as well to the present.

Our dominion over reason and intellectual life superficially appears to be threatened by the machines. But agency and culpability remain ours. Before we can face the problems that revolutionary technology poses for the future, or even the possibility of a tech-enabled apocalypse, we must carve out spaces in our lives where the use of technology does not crowd out our sense of moral responsibility and agency.

I think Wendell Berry, the poet-farmer, said it best in one of his poems, where he urges us to “every day do something that won’t compute.” This is what Lee Sedol did in his pathbreaking Go move that stumped his AI opponent. This is what you and I can do when we pray, work, think, read, and befriend without recourse to the crutches of technology. And this is what Benjamín Labatut does in deploying a humanistic and spiritual vernacular to engage fruitfully with the legacy of a great and terrible technologist.