How Gulliver’s Travels predicted AI and our attempts to make sense of it all

Gullivers Travels includes a description of a machine that woks very like modern AI systems, and with the same drawbacksGulliver’s Travels is one of those books we assume we know. But what we tend to recall is some stuff about Lilliput, giants, talking horses and possibly something about scientists trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers. It’s really about one man’s descent into disillusion with the human race. It is acerbic, occasionally tediously detailed, and offers insight into some aspects of the human condition, which makes it timeless.

It even manages to offer up a proto-LLM in the form of The Engine, a device found in the city of Lagado, impoverished by a commitment to relentless, pointless research. The Engine is described as “a project for improving speculative knowledge by practical and mechanical operations … Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by this contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.”

The principle of the machine is startlingly similar to that of AI LLMs. It consists of a table covered with words written out on wooden squares. Forty handles on the edge of the table would recombine these words at random and students would look for meaningful combinations of three or four words that would be transcribed. By compiling the words in this way, it would be possible to identify and write down all possible knowledge and art.

This is the illusion of knowledge and reason. And it’s identified in the modern context in this Twitter* thread by the former CEO of Reddit.

He makes two points about our relationships with such devices. First, that we are easily duped into believing there is some consciousness behind them. Secondly, that there’s little or no logic and rationality in humans either. We can’t always acknowledge this in either machines or ourselves.

‘It’s not that LLMs can’t do logic, there’s no logic going on IN HUMANS,’ he writes. ‘Logic is a very slow, conscious process, and very prone to error and “hallucination.” The “feeling of” being correct/logical is a vibe, only loosely correlated to actual valid reasoning.’

This is the source of Gulliver’s eventual disillusion with humans. After his final journey to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, the purely rational race of horses, he despairs at last. At the heart of this sense of detachment from his fellow humans is the realisation that they are not really rational, but rationalising. Even though Swift demonstrates how the pure reason of the horses can lead to very dark places – an idea he also explores in A Modest Proposal – his protagonist admires the Houyhnhnms. He contrasts them unfavourably with the thuggish Yahoos of mankind.

As Yishan Wong points out, we like to believe we are both logical and correct in the belief we hold, in the same way we misunderstand the mechanisms of AI. We seek out and disperse information and thoughts that support the ideas we cling to about ourselves. And we do it about mundane issues as well as important ones.

An example. Recently there was a story in the press about a new meta-analysis of the effects of remote work on people’s wellbeing. In The Telegraph it had this headline:

In The Observer it was this:

As for us, we went with:


Are we closer to the truth? I’d like to think so. But who will say we are right?




*I don’t care

Main image: Gulliver in discussion with Houyhnhnms (1856 illustration by J.J. Grandville).