We call them computers. They call them mentats. One is a machine, the other human. Both have superhuman intelligence.

From Short and Sweet AI, I’m Dr. Peper and today I’m talking about mentats.

Technology but No AI

In the science fiction novel Dune, the use of computers and artificial intelligence has been outlawed. The author, Frank Herbert was far from mainstream science fiction when he created a future universe conspicuously lacking in artificial intelligence and robots. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of technology in the Dune universe: lasguns, atomics, intergalactic navigation powered through the use of prescience created by a substance called spice. But there are no droids, no self driving transporters, no computer vision, no robot storm troopers.

In the novel’s back story we learn that in the past men had used thinking machines to enslave humanity. This lead to several centuries of war known as the Butlerian Jihad. In the end humans prevailed and defeated the men with the machines. And thinking machiines were outlawed, use of computers punishable by death. Humans had to enhance their own natural intelligence with rigorous discipline and advanced training. They learned to cultivate superhuman abilities by following a secret training method. They learned to rapidly analyse and process large amounts of data in great detail. Just as an olympic athlete masters the physical demands of competition, these humans honed and expanded their mental abilities. They became living supercomputers known as Mentats.

Mentat Training

The Mentat training encompassed many elements and different levels of ability. Their skills included logic, inference and extrapolation, insight, future planning, and detailed understanding of events. At the highest level they were skilled in wisdom and diplomacy, negotiated delicate matters, and could judge matters of life and death. They could make decisions similar to machine learning which is based on data and probabilities but they were not able to make intuitive decisions. Indeed, this inability to make decisions in the absence of data made them ineffective as leaders.

Dystopian science fiction stories of machines with superintelligence rising up against the humans who created them have become ever more popular. Is it because we’re living during a fourth revolution created by rapidly advancing artificial intelligence and we’re fearful of it? Some think Frank Herbert decided to not have thinking machines or artificial intelligence in Dune for a reason. Because he wanted to warn against AI and the dangers of a society run by intelligent computers. Is his future where humans have superhuman intelligence like computers really possible?

Augmented AI

The answer is, perhaps, if you remember Ray Kurzweil’s prediction discussed in a previous episode about his book, The Singularity is Near. He believes in the future there will be something called brain computer interfaces. Brain computer interfaces or BCIs will connect all the information and data from the cloud and download it directly to our brains. There’s a photo of what it might look like on my instagram today. Then we will not have to ban artificial intelligence. Nor rely on some secret training program to enhance our mental abilities to supercomputer levels as in the novel Dune.

Perhaps it will be a combination of humans augmented by artificial intelligence with brain computer interfaces. In my opinion, it is possible our future will be like Frank Herbert’s future in Dune, where we will all become Mentats or human supercomputers.

As always, links to further reading, podcasts and videos are in the shownotes. From Short and Sweet AI, I’m Dr. Peper.




Leave a Reply