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Benjamín Labatut's novel 'The Maniac' follows an AI scientist troubled by his work


Are human beings so clever - or we think we are - that we'll devise new and ingenious advances to achieve fabulous things and deliver our own destruction? That's a question at the heart of Benjamin Labatut's new novel drawn from history, "The MANIAC." And Benjamin Labatut, author of the previously acclaimed novel "When We Cease To Understand The World," joins us now from Milan. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

BENJAMIN LABATUT: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You begin with a very tough and tragic episode from history, the Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest and his 15-year-old son, Vassily. Please tell us what happened in September 1933. And before you do, let's please caution our listeners that you're going to hear about self-harm.

LABATUT: Well, Paul Ehrenfest was a physicist. He had this role. He was regarded as a sort of Socrates of physics, but he was also very melancholy. He was also a man who suffered greatly from melancholia, from depression, and also, because he felt that his science, which was so dear to him, physics, was getting away from him. And his son was - had Down syndrome. And he had him rescued, basically, from Germany because - during the first wave of killings. But then he falls into deep despair, digging its way into science. And in the first paragraph of the book, I tell the real story of how he walked into a home where his boy was and shot him in the head and then killed himself.

SIMON: Yeah. And by the way, let us add if you're troubled by thoughts of harming yourself, there is help available. You can call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. In your retelling, Paul Ehrenfest despaired not just of his life but what he saw as coming to the world and whether or not there was a place for him and his son in it.

LABATUT: Absolutely. He was complaining about how physical intuition and a sensuous relationship with the world was being replaced by a cold rationality. And many of his fears come alive in the central character of the book, which is John von Neumann. And there's even a letter where Paul Ehrenfest - a real letter - where he complains about the mathematical plague and the likes of von Neumann, who was a rising wonderkid of physics and mathematics and science.

SIMON: Von Neumann was sometimes called the smartest person in the world, wasn't he?

LABATUT: Absolutely. I mean, he was compared to the greats of his age, like Fermi, and he would just blow them away, even though many of his friends would say, well, we know that there's deeper thinkers, someone like Einstein, for example. To me, the central question, the most interesting one, again, was made by Wigner. He says, well, what can a mind like that see about the world? What are the things that he has to consider that we cannot even imagine? And I think that's particularly interesting now where we're beginning to create different intelligence from our own and that are going to open up doors that we haven't even considered are there yet.

SIMON: And that brings us to yet another character, Lee Sedol, who is still with us today, just 40, the greatest Go player in the world. Go, of course, is a strategy board game.

LABATUT: Well, Lee Sedol - to me, the book begins with Paul, and Paul is a prophet. And then it goes into von Neumann. And von Neumann is a sort of alien intelligence. But it ends with a man who during his entire life sought a beauty that he suspected existed but that he could not get at. So when he was confronted in the AI with what he had been looking for all his life, which is a new type of beauty, he found it terrifying.

SIMON: This is a software machine called AlphaGo that - well, I'll let you explain what it is.

LABATUT: This is an AI program developed by DeepMind back in 2016. They chose to play against Lee Sedol not just because he was a world champion, but because he was a player who was famous for being highly creative, aggressive. And Go was considered, till that time, to be, you know, the utmost limit of creativity. There was no way that a machine or that any learning algorithm could get at Go. So they chose that as a benchmark, and they developed this program who plays five games against Lee Sedol. And what happens during those five games, to me, is such a miracle. There are particularly two moves which have never been considered in the entire history of humanity and that show us something about the world that we're very quickly moving into.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that world based on which, in a sense, you've lived through in writing this novel. I mean, I don't know a nice way to say this. If the smartest people in the world can't look out for the future welfare of human beings, what will happen to us probably sooner than later?

LABATUT: Well, we seem to be completely unable to imagine the future. Suddenly, there's this blindness, this darkness. There's - we're suddenly faced with a mist that nobody can see beyond. And I find that to be both fascinating and absolutely terrifying. But the little wisdom that a book can give you is usually prospective or retrospective. The stories that I try to get at at the book, that's why I delve into things that happened in the '50s and in the '30s is because these stories, in some sense, they're like currents that gather into a storm. So it's impossible sitting at the eye of the storm, and we are there right now.

SIMON: I found myself, as I particularly got to the last 100 pages or so of your novel, assuaging myself with the idea that AI could not have written your novel.

LABATUT: That's incredibly kind of you (laughter). For now. For now. But the truth is, we don't know what it can do. And we don't know what we can do with it.

SIMON: Benjamin Labatut's new novel, "The MANIAC." Thank you so much for being with us.

LABATUT: Thank you so very much for inviting me.


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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.