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Building a MANIAC

BOOKS | Novel explores the history and perils of AI


The Maniac Benjamin Labatut

Building a MANIAC
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IN J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S The Fellowship of the Ring, the dwarfs of Moria mine too deeply and awaken a dangerous prehistoric beast. I was reminded of this while reading Benjamín Labatut’s The MANIAC (Penguin Press 2023), a novel exploring the early development of artificial intelligence. According to the story (which blurs the line between fact and fiction), mathematicians who dabbled in quantum mechanics used their findings to create the atom bomb. Those same concepts later gave rise to early AI.

This dark, heady novel suggests that mathematicians dug too deep and discovered something we still do not understand. The story revolves around the life of mathematician John von Neumann, told from the perspective of colleagues, friends, and family members. Neumann lays a framework for quantum mechanics, co-creates game theory, and serves as a consultant for the Manhattan Project. He helps to design the successor to Alan Turing’s primitive computer. Neumann dubs the machine the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer—“MANIAC, for short.”

Neumann is a genius but one so bound by logic that he has no moral bearings. He views life as a game, explains his second wife Klára Dán. “The problem with those games,” she writes, “is that when played in the real world … we come face to face with dangers we have not the knowledge or wisdom to overcome.”

The book is heavy on mathematical details, so it’s a bit dry in places. Some characters infrequently swear. But it’s also a perceptive book, to a certain degree. Technology has presented the world with complex ethical questions (e.g., should everyone get a Neuralink implant?). And we face those questions in a time when a growing number of people lack the ethical framework to grapple with them.

Fans of Oppenheimer might recognize that this book ends with a similar sense of foreboding. Labatut warns humanity has reached the downward slope of technology’s return curve: In the last words of one of Tolkien’s dwarves: “We cannot get out.”

Labatut’s book correctly acknowledges that progress isn’t always a good thing but may err in assuming that technological progress and its fallout are the inexorable course of history.


Bekah McCallum

Bekah is a reviewer, reporter, and editorial assistant at WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Anderson University.

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