Rise of the Machines: What can Dune teach us?

The Internet of things is controlling more and more of our lives.

Like many of you I was a Dune fanatic. When I was younger I read and reread the original series by Frank Herbet, hoping to find the hidden insights and secrets. I was excited when his son and Kevin Anderson continued the Dune novels, though to say they were uneven is an understatement. But to watch the CNBC documentary Rise of the Machines I couldn't help but think of how the thinking machines enslaved humans until the Butlerian Jihad in Dune set them free.

The CNBC show details how we are being "helped" by an explosion of sensors and other machines, some small, some not, that all speak to each other and us. They can help us with better diagnosis and healthcare, they can drive our cars safer than we can, and they make our homes and lives more comfortable. According to the show, we haven't seen anything yet. While today there are more devices connected to the Internet than there are people, by 2015 (just two years) this number will grow to 25 billion connected devices. 

The impacts of this revolution are profound. As big as or even bigger than the computer or industrial revolution, the rise of the machines has the promise to change the very nature and fabric of our existence. Most of all, this isn't some pie in the sky or far-off idea from a Sci-fi novel (even if it does remind me of it). This is real and happening right before our eyes. It is sneaking up on us in plain sight.

All of these machines are of course generating an awful lot of data. Analyzing and making use of this data is driving a lot of the big data wave that we are seeing course through the tech world today as well. All in all, we are barely scratching the surface of what this will all mean and how it will affect our lives.

The next boot to drop is marrying these sensors and data to robots who can act on the information gathered. Don't be naïve; we are well on our way down that road too. They may not be humanoid robots like Erasmus from the Dune epic or even Asminov-style robots, but they will be robots.

So, is all of this a good thing? If 90% of car accidents are the result of human error, how many lives will be saved by letting computers and machines take driving over? Look what computer automation has done to bring down the rate of train and plane accidents. (if you don't see a video below, please reload page)


What about new wealth creation? All of these machines and the information they gather will open up untold new business opportunities for those fast and smart enough to exploit them. The work these machines do will afford others the opportunities to focus on yet other endeavors which can benefit us all. Like many revolutions before it, the rise of the machines will create lots of opportunities, as well as winners and losers.

Again I ask, is this a good thing? Taking a lesson from Dune, will these machines eventually rise up to the point where we can't live without them? A future where they control humans "for our own good" is not what anyone wants (I think).

Just like with much of science and technology, we need to think about logical and sensible places where the boundaries exist. If you are too dependent on someone or something to do something for you, eventually you lose the ability to do it yourself. Too much of a good thing is not good for you.

I will be watching "Rise of the Machines" on the 18th at 9pm on CNBC. You should too. After watching it, though, maybe you should go reread some of the Dune books or Asimov Robot novels before we rush headlong into this brave new world.

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