It was as if those awful things had a will of their own,” says physicist Richard Feynman in Benjamín Labatut’s latest novel The MANIAC. Feynman never actually said this—or if he did, I can’t find evidence of it—but the veracity of the quote is not what matters. More important are the implications of what he’s saying. Feynman is referring to the advent and use of the first atomic bombs.
In The MANIAC, Labatut suggests we’re watching history repeat itself regarding a new potentially dubious technology: artificial intelligence. “It is a future that inspires hope and horror: Some believe we should welcome it with open arms, while many others are convinced that we should do everything in our power to ensure that this mad dream remains safely beyond our grasp,” Labatut writes.
This isn’t the first time the Chilean writer has delved into the history of science and scientific hubris in his fiction. His previous novel, When We Cease to Understand the World examined the conflicted lives of scientists, including chemist Fritz Haber and physicists Karl Schwarzschild and Werner Heisenberg, whose work shattered the foundations of putative reality. The book was among the most acclaimed of 2021.
The title of The MANIAC refers explicitly to one of the earliest computers built—the Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer—which was constructed at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project around an architecture developed by mathematician and implicit titular maniac John von Neumann. Largely narrated via imagined contributions from various Los Alamos collaborators—Feynman, Eugene Wigner, Sydney Brenner, Klára Dán von Neumann, et al.—the novel’s unique fusion of fact and fiction follows the rise and collapse of von Neumann and his quest to create “self-reproducing machines,” an obsession he assumed because “something had to survive the bombs.”
It is a future that inspires hope and horror.
Unspooled through an atmosphere of creeping dread, The MANIAC parallels two developments. First, it explores von Neumann’s complicity in the genesis of the Bomb and how computing emerged from that infamous endeavor. “What we are creating now,” Labatut à la von Neuman declares, “is a monster whose influence is going to change history, provided there is any history left!” What’s more, “it would be unethical, from the point of view of scientists, not to do what they know is feasible, no matter what terrible consequence it may have. And this is only the beginning!”
From there, Labatut moves onto the story of how, in 2016, the artificial intelligence program AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol—one of the world’s top players of the game Go—in an event that many considered a major turning point in the development of AI. There’s no killer robot takeover, no machine intelligence gone mad with power: just a computer that is exceedingly good—inhumanly so—at a board game. Seemingly innocent enough, but by linking this almost anecdotal occurrence (a computer beat a human at Go) to one of the most terrible technological crises in history (the invention of nuclear weapons), Labatut insinuates that we would do well to consider the wisdom of our headlong charge into creation at any cost.
His singular technique of chronicling scientific innovation via fictionalized narrative is superbly effective, drawing the reader through a tale of technological trepidation with all the nervous patience of a burning bomb fuse. It is as thrilling as it is troubling—one of those disquieting reads whose conflicts and questions churn in your mind long after you have finished reading.
The MANIAC implies that worse than our heedlessness toward the aftermath is our awareness yet negligence of it. “The danger is intrinsic,” says Labatut’s von Neumann (here the author cribbed from the mad genius’s 1955 paper Can We Survive Technology?). “For progress there is no cure.”
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