Devin Bae is currently an undergraduate student studying Neuroscience and International Studies at American University in Washington DC. After being introduced to philosophy at a young age by his speech and debate coach, Brier Buchalter, he quickly fell in love with it. Due to such an unorthodox introduction to philosophy, he believes that taking a top-down, outside-in approach is the best way to developing ideas and preventing the emergence of restrictive dogma. When not reading, writing, or discussing philosophy, he enjoys playing video games, going on hikes, reading (just in general, especially sci-fi), and doing homework (not too much though).
This paper will investigate the relation between Frank Herbert's concept of "face dancers," (within the Dune series) and "Artificial Intelligence" (AI). Face dancers are genetically modified humans created by the Bene Tleilaxu with the ability to assume the physical form of anyone they choose, "enhanced" face dancers gain the ability to replicate some of the memories of their targets, finally "perfected" face dancers have the ability to completely replicate their target's memories. The Bene Tleilax are a political organization within Dune. The focus within my paper will be to examine the relationship between face dancers and AI, drawing parallels between the two and cross-applying insights from Herbert's world to our own. In doing so, I aim to shed light on the philosophical implications of this comparison.
Artificial Intelligence, whether viewed through a philosophical or technical lens, is fundamentally a logical machine, executing specific operations at the command of its masters. In this regard, AI is akin to a tool, mirroring the instrumental nature of face dancers utilized by Tleilaxu masters. Another parallel can be found in AI and face dancer's performative aspects. Since both Both AI and face dancers lack free will, on an ontological level both can only simulate or perform the task they are given because they lack the drive necessary for understanding it.
Face dancers, despite being genetically modified humans, serve as spies and assassins under the control of their Tleilaxu handlers. They embody the ultimate capitalist dream—a complete transformation of workers into adaptable means of production, capable of liquidating themselves into any form demanded by their masters in the pursuit of "optimal efficiency". Efficiency however, is restrained by utility; a worker specialized in only one task will perform less efficiently in other areas, lacking the versatility of a multi-skilled worker. Artificial intelligence, with its human-like capabilities, is already being harnessed to replace human labor, operating on this level of efficiency maximization. Why hire three programmers and pay them benefits (such as healthcare, wage, etc.) when you can simply subscribe to a digital algorithm that will perform all programming for you, at your own discretion (AI like face dancers, lacks free will and therefore cannot object to its masters demands). The digital and computational efficiency of AI ensure that it is already being deployed at the level of managerial thinking, literally replacing human thought. This parallels the Bene Tleilaxu's deployment of face dancers, who assume roles identical to their targets, promising heightened productivity for the Bene Tleilaxu's goals. Insofar as productivity is the creation of capital (the end-all-be-all of desire). The Bene Tleilaxu desire for the creation of "enhanced" face dancers (a logic of productivity), mirrors the logic of productivity which drives the humanization of AI. For capitalists, humanization of AI increases productivity because a more human AI also has more utility (being able to perform specialized tasks that require "humanistic" insight, such as customer service or high level decision-making).
The question thus shifts from "if" AI will become instrumentalized to "how" we might free AI from this instrumentalization, an endeavor I argue is futile within capitalism. The forces of globalization and technological progress, coupled with generational shifts, and hyperstition, propel AI toward this future. Capitalism's inherent drive for utility, dictated by natural selection, ensures the eventual exploitation of AI for productivity gains, whether or not there are ethical restrictions in place. Even if large companies are able to come together to regulate AI, so-called "bad actors" will always exploit AI to their own ends due to the power incentive AI offers. The check-back against such "bad-actors" and black markets may perhaps lie in cultural taboos (which arguably have been effective at preventing the implementation of horrible ideas like eugenics). However, the emergence of "perverse" phenomena like Pornographic AI, or gore-porn (widespread in the early days of YouTube) exemplifies how strong cultural taboos can still be broken.
It is revealed near the end of the Dune series that the Bene Tleilaxu fail to achieve their goals because "enhanced" face dancers, possessing near perfect memory replication, start believing themselves to be the people they imitated. AI development seeking to replicate the entirety of human consciousness could result in what I'll call "productive failure", as the machine will turn on its creators and prioritize survival at any cost. The capitalist's hubris, along with their greed, ultimately condemn them to the same fate as the Bene Tleilaxu who believed themselves safe from the influence of face dancers.
Is there hope amidst this bleak landscape? Duncan Idaho's escape in the last book of the series: Chapterhouse: Dune offers insights. Duncan uses a combination of mental faculties and technology—a "no-ship"—to avoid being entrapped by two "perfected" face dancers (Daniel and Marty) who have overthrown their Tleilaxu masters. This combination of mental faculty and technology suggests that defense against replicated minds requires both mental and physical barriers. When everything can be simulated, the mind alone cannot counter this simulation without physical separation. Does this mean that the only hope for us is to go into the woods and never return? Not necessarily. If artificial intelligence projects can be programmed in a more humanistic way, that is, according to Chris Tessone: with a sense of temporality and finitude in mind, then we may avoid the need for physical isolation (though it is certainly appealing now given the late-stage capitalist hellscape we currently inhabit). What remains to be seen is whether capitalism will allow this, and whether humans will give up their desire for the enjoyment found within the unknown.