I believe that the affinity I harbor for the Herberts’ Dune saga is built upon my appreciation for the themes and theses it shares with, and holds in opposition to, the Star Trek multimedia empire. The ideas they hold in common are interesting. Their points of contention are striking. And because, in the final analysis, the Herberts’ (and Anderson’s) work is more imbued with gravitas, it presents a more intriguing view of the future, and greater insight into human interactions with the technological environments we create and inhabit.
Metal vs. Cells
Both works raise humanity on high, sanctifying, even deifying, special human characteristics, particularly in opposition to machine intelligence. I’m not quite as conversant in the ST canon and ancillary stories as I am with the Dune saga, but while both story cycles preach wariness of machine intelligence, and both regale the audience with tales about the foolhardy who surrender their autonomy to the whims of circuitry, in the Dune saga the maintenance of biological superiority is given the weight of moral authority, while in the ST myths, biological supremacy is (even in the face of the Borg threat) simply a good idea.
Maintaining the Edge
Here the two extended works present extremely stimulating alternative visions of the competition between biological and machine intelligence. Both universes present the audience with peoples faced with implacable machine foes. Their initial reactions start out remarkably similar, but play out completely differently, at a deep and profound level. In both universes, the threat of machine intelligence prompts prohibitions against research into the field of thinking machines. In the ST universe, scientist create objects that skirt along the edge of sentience and sapience, while still remaining subservient (Data notwithstanding), because somehow the computing work which makes possible the technological wonders of the age must continue. How long can this continue? How long can the researchers continue to improve the performance of their machines while actively preventing the emergence of consciousness? One obvious answer is, “As long as the writers of the show want to.” Still this is a real concern. Just ask Bill Joy.
Better Living Through Chemistry
In the Dune saga, the prohibition has been raised to the level of a universal moral and religious edict. Still, the need for vast computing power remains and here they (or more accurately, the authors) came up another solution, one that we shall soon wrestle with ourselves. Since improving thinking machines was not just dangerous but potentially disastrous, they turned to improving themselves through selective breeding, genetic engineering and mind altering substances. Here the denizens of the Dune saga are totally unlike the inhabitants of the ST universe. In ST the human corpus is viewed as perfect in its imperfections, and altering it, improving it, tampering with it in any way, ranks among the most high on their scale moral outrages. In ST, drugs are only for healing the sick and weak, and hold no other socially acceptable uses. In the world of Dune, tinkering with the human genome is an accepted practice, even if it seems to be limited to the highest echelons of society, and it’s knock-on effects are unpredictable. And drugs are everywhere in the Dune universe, used for everything from increasing the ability to reason and calculate, to enabling the ability to create wormholes in the space/time continuum.
Lessons From the Future
So, where does this leave us? We are in a race with our own machines. Our technological world and works are currently built upon the triplet pillars of human sweat, human imagination and machine computation. We are feverishly improving upon the third, while performing no work upon the two. While we are (by best estimates) nowhere near to creating true machine intelligence, how long we ignore improving ourselves, as our machines undergo radical improvements, in increasingly shorter development cycles?