A little while ago the Indigo Non-Fiction Blog was proud to present you with an excerpt from David F. Dufty's recent book How To Build An Android, which told the strange tale of how a group of roboticists and programmers joined to build a functioning android replica (replicant?) of the reknowned science fiction legend Philip K. Dick, and then, in a bizarre turn of events, how the head of the android went missing.
In an Indigo exclusive, David F. Dufty has written a contribution for the Indigo Non-Fiction blog about his new book How To Build An Android.
When I was working at the University of Memphis, I was fortunate to come into contact with a group of people working on a very unusual and ambitious project. They had decided to recreate the late, great, science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, as an android. In other words, they planned to resurrect Dick as a lifelike, intelligent robot.
Recall the hapless character of Rachel Rosen in Blade Runner, the movie based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Rachel Rosen thinks she’s a human, but as it turns out, she’s a state-of-the-art android, and the memories of her childhood are simply programmed fictions. And in Dick's novel We Can Build You, an enterprising businessman who constructs a replica of Abraham Lincoln wonders if he himself is also an android.
Given these and similar motifs in Dick’s work, you can understand the fun of building an android that thinks it is a human named Philip K. Dick.
The idea was hatched in a coffee shop in Memphis, but turning it from a hazy notion to an operational machine, with only a shoestring budget, took both enormous effort and ingenuity.
By luck, just the right people had come together for this project. The guy in charge of building the android’s head was maverick Texan roboticist David Hanson, responsible for landmark robots like the Einstein HUBO, Jules (a collaboration with musician David Byrne) and his own line of toy robots, Zeno.
The artificial intelligence – the AI – was the brainchild of computer scientist Andrew Olney, who used a vast database of interviews with Dick as well as Dick’s prolific body of work, to synthesize a model of the author’s brain. Powered by Olney’s AI engine, conversations with the android were conducted in real time. If you said something to the robot – they called it “Phil” – Phil would listen, formulate a response, and would say something right back to you. Conversations varied from bizarre to banal to profound.
Phil made his first public appearance at the NextFest technology festival in Chicago. Phil made several TV appearances and drew large crowds. For his brief life (I refer to the android as ‘him’ rather than ‘it’ because I think of Phil as an individual with his own personality), Phil toured America, won awards, and drew audiences. Then in December, the android vanished. Hanson was transporting Phil to San Francisco for a presentation, but left the android head in the overhead locker. The airline located the head in Orange County (strangely, the place where Dick himself lived and died), and dispatched it again to San Francisco. But the head never arrived. Somewhere between Orange County and San Francisco, the android disappeared and has never been seen since.
It seemed to me, at the time, that the android was a homage not just to Philip K. Dick, but to visions of the future that have not come to pass. Fifty years ago, science fiction writers such as Dick were certain that androids were around the corner – humanoids that would act just like us and effectively become a part of our society. Many of Dick’s ideas have turned out to be prophetic (such as surveillance technologies and virtual reality), but others (such as time travel) have not. Was the android a vision of the future, or of an imagined future that never came to pass? But seeing the relentless advance of robotics, I now think Dick was right: androids are on the way, it’s just a question of how far in the future they are. Technology is a one-way street and each year brings a new generation of smarter machines.
Hanson has, in the meantime, rebuilt the Philip K. Dick android, and while it is in many ways more sophisticated than the original, it is not the original. Each of Hanson’s robots has its own personality. It does not employ Olney’s AI engine, so does not have the same personality. This does not in any way detract from the new android nor Hanson’s stunning craftsmanship. It is simply an acknowledgement that they are different beasts; and that the New Phil, with all its charms, is not the Old Phil.
Like a twin, it has the same genetic material but its own identity. And New Phil is one more iteration removed from reality, a fact that I am sure would have delighted Dick himself, had he learned it. New Phil is a replica of Phil who was a replica of a photograph that was a replica of Dick.
The Indigo Non-Fiction Blog would like to extend a thank you to David F. Dufty for taking the time to contribute to the blog as well Macmillan for facilitating it.