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The prohibition on the creation of Thinking Machines in the background of the Dune universe is well understood. However from those titles that I have read, the prime reason for this seems to be writen as to avoid the risk of creating a new machine tyranny; if it is as well understood as that. It's highly dogmatic at this point and maybe there is no such linear chain of reasoning in most people's minds. It seems at least as likely if not more so that the bigger risk would be of finding a remnant of the old Thinking Machines that is accidentally (or possibly selfishly and deliberately) reactivated. This would likely come pre-loaded with malicious sentience without having to develop it by accident. It's somewhat common-sense that an advanced computer not possessed of its own malice could be co-opted by one that is and used for evil, but this doesn't seem to be identified as a prime risk in the canon.

Do any titles in the Dune universe mention this, as a hypothetical or actual risk encountered in the main storyline?

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    The Butlerian Jihad was 10,000 years before the first Dune book. I doubt it was much of a danger by then. Oct 31, 2021 at 18:08
  • @suchiuomizu I'm sure there are stories (plural, or I might be able to come up with enough coherent details to ask a story-ID question) featuring automated defences functioning after that long
    – Chris H
    Oct 31, 2021 at 18:09
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    Leto II mentions that his actions averted a future where sentient Hunter Killers would have already wiped out humanity. Maybe they were dug up, rather than reinvented. (We’re pretending the Sanderson novels never happened, right?)
    – Shamshiel
    Oct 31, 2021 at 18:35
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    @Shamshiel From AcePL's answer linked here, that might have been due to an Ixian invention that Leto prevented from being made. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/252152/… Oct 31, 2021 at 19:13
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    @Shamshiel tsk, tsk confounding Anderson with Sanderson :D Well, both did similar task, though, not only have similar surname.
    – Mithoron
    Oct 31, 2021 at 21:33

2 Answers 2

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The original six books by Frank Herbert are pretty vague about the Butlerian Jihad, but it seems that the main gist of it is that it is people who use Thinking Machines, not the machines themselves, that were the threat.

In the sequel/prequel books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson however, the Thinking Machines are made more literal. They are indeed machines, computers who have decided to eliminate humanity, and there is a trilogy devoted to the Butlerian Jihad, involving lots and lots of machines crawling all over the place and deciding to, well, eliminate humanity. This is the Legends of Dune trilogy.

The trilogy taking place immediately after this, the Schools of Dune trilogy, does involve various elements making a resurgence, including:

  • the independent robot Erasmus is still functioning to a degree
  • various factions repurposing Thinking Machine starships, factories, and walker bodies
  • a robot being used to train fighters (this may have been from prior books, I was sure it was in this series too)

Also, during their Prelude To Dune trilogy, a Heighliner that has gone off-course is noticed and approached by an outside force that the Navigator refers to as the "old enemy", before it manages to flee. I assume this refers to the Thinking Machine empire that takes root outside the Empire, a copy of which fled the attack by what remained of humanity in the Butlerian Jihad.

It isn't until their sequel books, Hunters of Dune and Sandworms Of Dune, that the rejuvenated Thinking Machine empire makes a meaningful return to the battlefield. It is revealed, at least by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson (and we may never know if this is what Frank Herbert intended), that the force that the Honored Matres are fleeing back into the Old Empire is the Thinking Machines, which they had accidentally stumbled upon in the Scattering.

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No, for multiple reasons.

The Jihad is a MacGuffin: nothing more than a plot point that enabled Frank Herbert to build the computer-less universe of Dune. Therefore it's completely unsurprising that he devoted very little page space to it; the story of the Jihad is not the story he intended to tell. Further, the less we know about the Jihad the more important it appears to become to the series mythos, precisely because each reader has more latitude to interpret it as they desire.

In other words, there is no thinking machine archaeology in Frank Herbert's novels because that simply wasn't the point.

The "sequels" written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson arguably demonstrate that Frank's approach was the correct one. These books "fleshed out" the Jihad by introducing machine entities that are very much the tired, lazy trope of artificial intelligence will inevitably, for some ill-defined reason, decide to kill its creators that was vomited into the public's consciousness by the Terminator and Matrix franchises.

In the sequels' case, any sort of thoughtful or interesting possibilities such as the resurrection of ancient thinking machines is orthogonal to the purpose of said novels, which is to sell novels via plastering the Dune name on them. So, again, not the point.

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    Eh, I wouldn't put Matrix there. In Matrix, it is actually humans who decide to exterminate the sentient AIs due to paranoia. The AIs are merely defending themselves. They even try to subdue humanity with minimum casualties.
    – Davor
    Nov 1, 2021 at 19:21
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    "Colossus: The Forbin Project" : am I nothing to you? Nov 1, 2021 at 19:57
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    The Butlerian Jihad is not a MacGuffin. It does not drive Dune’s plot at all. It’s another typo of plot device, which may or may not have a name (outside TV Tropes).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Nov 1, 2021 at 21:04
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    I like this answer a lot, but strong agree with @lucasbachmann that it is misusing the term "MacGuffin". I don't have a better name for it, but I'd hazard something like an "axiom" - a fundamental truth of the world that isn't questioned. Nov 1, 2021 at 23:46
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    @Acccumulation - but the AIs in Matrix were living in their separate country. They were already fully sentient and recognized as such, and given their own place to live. And only then humans decided to go geocidal on them. At that point, "turning them off" is murder, plain and simple. And humans didn't have any way to turn them off anyway, it was done with nukes.
    – Davor
    Nov 2, 2021 at 9:11

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