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I understand that Mentats have replaced the computers but the Mentats don't seem to be that many in number. From my understanding each house only has one Mentat. Now Mentats make perfect sense for doing political and other projections for the great houses but it would be impossible for a Mentat to replace the everyday control systems.

The little microcontroller in the air conditioners for example is a computer by definition, and if such microcontrollers don't exist then how does society function as a whole?

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    remember, the Butlerian Jihad takes place 10,000 or so years prior to the events of Dune (ie - Paul, Fremen, etc...) so, along with the answers below re: microcomputers and such, another way to look at it is that, for most people, they cope with the lack of computers in the same way people in the Middle Ages did... – NKCampbell Aug 5 at 16:35
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    Gosh darnit, how did I manage to research and write a thesis without a computer? It was only 10,000 or so years ago, but it seems unimaginable now. – Invisible Trihedron Aug 5 at 19:56
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    'How does society function as a whole' - how do you think your parents grew up? And your grandparents? – Aganju Aug 6 at 5:09
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    Dune doesn't really hold up in 2020. Don't worry about it. – user91988 Aug 6 at 14:16
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    @AzorAhai--hehim With psychoactive drugs that enabled them to navigate spacetime, how else? – TARS Aug 6 at 15:46
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Mentats don't replace computers. They replace computers that "are made in the likeness of the human mind" - that is, Artificial Intelligences.

So computational devices exist. Just not sentient ones. (Actually they also exist, but they're very illegal).

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    SPOILERS Then there should be computers for keeping databases. Why are the bene gesserit said to have illegally owned computers for keeping record of bloodlines or whatever, based on this, such usage shouldn't be illegal right? – Arkilo Aug 5 at 14:36
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    @Arkilo Yes, but due to the fear of sentient machines they are way more restrictive than they really need to be. – kutschkem Aug 5 at 14:40
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    The Bene Gesserit have a well known antipathy for Mentats. It's possible they use borderline technology to manage the Breeding Book and predict good matches (we would call this data science). But it would not amount to AI in the Butlerian Jihad sense. – WOPR Aug 5 at 14:42
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    A quote to back this up would be appropriate here. – Misha R Aug 6 at 6:39
  • It would be useful to point out that in-setting Ix is making said borderline tech and selling it to everyone with assurances that there are no thinking machines involved, no siree – Pingcode Aug 7 at 7:36
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From the glossary in the original Dune, about the Butlerian Jihad:

Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."

Now, there is a huge difference between a simple micro controller or a pocket calculator and "a machine in the likeness of a human mind". Daily life presumably works fine with quite a few advancements made in electronics (see laser guns, personal shields, ...).

One would think that cloud computing, self driving cars and video game AI took a bit of a hit though. Especially since in that world it seems reasonable to err on the side of caution in those things.

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    Video game AI and self driving cars are orders of magnitude less complex than a human mind. I have not read Dune but I don't think those should count as "in the likeness of a human mind". – Renan Aug 6 at 13:46
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    @renan: 'In the likeness of' is interpreted very liberally throughout Dune. Both video game AI and self driving cars are attempts to make computers do things humans would do, which would be enough to set off a knee-jerk reaction in those opposed to the resurgence of AI regardless of their complexity, in much the same way that some people would bomb a satirical cartoonist for daring to draw a prophet even though an image on paper is clearly not a man. – Joe Bloggs Aug 6 at 14:38
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Many things we do with computers these days can be done perfectly well without computers (and prior to the microcontroller explosion of the 90s, usually were). For example, the air conditioner you mention could be controlled just fine with a bimetallic switch to sense and react to temperature changes. This extends clear up to large-scale industrial systems: the Manhattan Project managed to build atom bombs without the use of a single computer.

Back in the 1960s, when Dune was first published, people would have been quite familiar with these systems, so Frank Herbert wouldn't have seen any need to call them out -- they'd just be part of the general understanding of the readership. Even so, they're mentioned from time to time in the books. For example, in Dune, there's a brief mention of a clockwork-based watering system for plants.

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    fwiw - IBM punch card computers were indeed used at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Also the Mark 1 was engaged in the project - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Mark_I – NKCampbell Aug 6 at 0:18
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    @NKCampbell, at the time of the Manhattan Project, the Mark 1 was incapable of conditional branching. Conditional branching (decision-making) is the basic feature that distinguishes a computer from a calculator. More significantly, the Mark 1 was used for high-level designing (ie. Mentat work), not low-level control of machinery. – Mark Aug 6 at 0:36
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    comme si comme ça for future reference – ThePainfull Aug 6 at 12:27
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    Reminds me of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism. – pedrofurla Aug 6 at 19:51
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    again - it depends on both the historical and textual context of the word (which is ENTIRELY applicable when dealing with a text from the early 60's) vs a modern contextual understanding. The Mark 1 and ENIAC were absolutely considered computers in their time (and are still classified as such in many texts) but compared to what we have today (perhaps this is where the pedantism comes into play) are merely calculators, not having Turing completeness, etc... – NKCampbell Aug 7 at 1:11
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Remember that Dune was first published in 1965. There were no microcontrollers. No common technology incorporated computers. Few, even in advanced societies, had ever seen one with their own eyes. Some big organizations had them for accounting and payroll. Other applications were more exotic: R&D, missile guidance, ...

It was quite easy in 1965 to imagine a society without computers. My personal computing device in those days was a slide rule. However, Asimov had written about robots, von Neumann had written a book on the analogies between the computer and the brain, some researchers were working on AI, and other science fiction writers were interested in its possible dangers. So, at the time Herbert wrote Dune, it made sense to imagine a world that had rejected AI, along with most computers.

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    I think people in the 60s also didn't realize how much in between there would be between a basic calculator and a real AI...given that they'd gone from basically nothing to space craft, it seemed like AI was just around the corner (spoiler: did not happen). (Famously, computer vision: lyndonhill.com/opinion-cvlegends.html ) – user3067860 Aug 6 at 14:40
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    @user3067860 The AI researchers were telling everybody who would listen that it was just around the corner. But other things were trendy in the 60s. Ecology was entering the common discourse. The idea that drugs could enhance human capabilities was in vogue. Dune captured that spirit so well it was one on the books reviewed in the Whole Earth Catalog. – John Doty Aug 6 at 15:26
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Now Mentats make perfect sense for doing political and other projections for the great houses but it would be impossible for a Mentat to replace the everyday control systems.

The little microcontroller in the air conditioners for example is a computer by definition, and if such microcontrollers don't exist then how does society function as a whole?

Computers on their own don't do anything (other than heat up the room); they're only useful when running a program (e.g. a control system, or whatever).

If we have a computer running some program, it can always be replaced by a dedicated circuit for performing the same calculations, known as an ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit). ASICs can be vastly more efficient than computers (that's why they're used for bitcoin mining).

The main reason we use computers is they can be reprogrammed: existing machines can be used for new tasks, and updates/fixes can be made to the program without having to build a new physical machine/circuit/whatever.

There's also nothing particularly special about electronic circuits, other than their speed. Both computers and application-specific machines can be built using clockwork, billiard balls, etc.

Hence the main effect of forbidding general-purpose computers would be slowing down innovation: they wouldn't have the quick feedback cycles we enjoy when hacking on software; they'd need to disassemble and rearrange their wiring/gears/etc. every time; and new products can't be 'downloaded', they'd need to either be physically shipped, or built on-site from blueprints.

This also incentivises simplicity (which is good if we also want to avoid "borderline" thinking machines), and solving problems using clever tricks/hacks if possible. This seems to fit well with the Dune universe: lots of their technology is simple, ingenious, and pretty much unchanged for thousands of years (e.g. shigawire, stillsuits/tents, all the various uses of suspensors like shields and glowglobes, etc.).


There is a slight complication, since some programs are designed to run other programs (e.g. a Web browser can run Javascript programs). These are called "virtual machines". If we try implementing such programs directly, we'll just end up with a (slightly different form of) computer.

However, the above argument applies to these virtual machines too: they are useless without a ("higher-level") program to run, and such programs can be implemented by a dedicated (physical) machine. For example, we can build a circuit which implements the Javascript of a particular Web page, without having a general-purpose Javascript computer, or a general-purpose PC.

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    This is the most "correct" answer in my opinion. You don't NEED reprogrammable machines in order to build any of the things we see in Dune, single-purpose circuits can accomplish a lot, we just don't use them much because reprogrammable computers are a lot easier to work with – Bitsplease Aug 6 at 22:19
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    I wasn't implying that Mentats are equal to programmable computers, I was implying that I see them being a good substitute for 'thinking' computers or AI. But thanks a lot man, this was very well informed. – Arkilo Aug 6 at 22:50
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In the prequels, not written by Frank Herbert, computers as we know them exist but AI is illegal.

However I think this was a bit of a retcon. In the original series, it seemed more like all programmable digital computers were heresy, but analog electronics were allowed.

So you certainly could have air conditioning, which people in real life have been using since the 1930s, and it could have a simple mechanical thermostat controlling it instead of a microcontroller, or even just a switch that you (or your servants) turn on when you feel hot and turn off when you don't.

As an example of a borderline device from the books: a suspicious Ixian recording device, Leto II's dictatel. It is possible to make a recording device with only analogue electronics, so this dictatel may have been permissible. However its small size and clever design seemed suspicious (in the real world, there are no analogue voice recognition systems, and although an analogue neural net for voice recognition is at least theoretically possible that also seems wildly against the spirit of the Butlerian prohibition). The Ixians may have cheated and used a computer, and who would be able to tell? Nobody outside IX had seen one in centuries.

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    I also don't think that Leto II gives two rats about anything anyone else thinks about what's right and wrong, so if he wants a computer, the god-worm gets a computer ;D – NKCampbell Aug 6 at 0:34
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There are effectively two classes of computers: microcontrollers with a single or few limited and fixed functions, like your air conditioner; and programmable computers.

The Butlerian prohibitions would be mostly irrelevant to the former, while the latter would likely be forbidden. The smartphone in your pocket is a programmable computer. Is it anywhere near sentient? No. Could it be made to appear sentient? Yes, with some trickery. Which likely means it would be a no-no for the Butlerians.

That's a problem, because humans today are pretty dependent on programmable computers, even if we don't realise it. It's essentially a given that humans who have the technology to design and build faster-than-light starships are going to need ordinary computers far more powerful than what we have access to today.

The Dune universe simply handwaves this consideration, and indeed many others around technology, away with psychics and prescience and breeding programs. None of which are particularly credible as a replacement for sufficiently advanced computers.

Effectively, Dune is not a science-fiction novel, it's a high-fantasy one. Which makes perfect sense given the time at which it was originally envisaged (1965): well before computers became as integrated into our daily lives as they are today.

As an example, Herbert didn't believe that something as complicated as a faster-than-light transit between two stars could be calculated by ordinary humans, but he either didn't have the foresight to extrapolate how powerful computers would become (or feared that possibility, hence the Butlerian Jihad), so he invented Guild Navigator prescience to cover for this.

In short, Dune's world-building - especially in the areas of technology - is woefully inadequate. But that's mostly okay, as it's a story about people, not technology.

So the ultimate answer to "how do Dune's humans cope with the lack of computers?" is "they don't, because their society would literally be unable to exist, but it's not important enough to the overall story to lose any sleep over".

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  • I think it's important to note that this society didn't achieve FTL travel without computers; their civilization was initially built with computers and AI, and then the computers and AI were removed. So the "handwave' features are more plausible if they were kicked off by a society with AI capability. Sort of the way the society in The Dog Said Bow-Wow retains biotech originally created by AIs even after the AIs are gone. – tbrookside Aug 8 at 14:20

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