How To Lose Philip K. Dick’s Head

Reading between the lines.
June 1 2012 11:46 PM

The Android Head of Philip K. Dick

The unlikely story of the sci-fi author’s “robotic resurrection.”

(Continued from Page 1)

The bot looked remarkably like Dick and even wore some of his clothes, donated by his children. More importantly, it spoke not just like Dick, but as Dick, or at least it was meant to: The android’s creators loaded his prodigious body of work in the software, plus reams of interviews with the real writer. If a person posed the robot a question that the real Dick had been asked—and if it had been recorded—the machine would respond just as the writer did, in Dick’s own voice. Only if Dick had never answered a particular question would the software attempt to construct a response using a system called latent semantic analysis. The robot also had some preprogrammed responses to frequently asked questions.

Author David Dufty.
Author David Dufty.

Disappointingly, it turns out Dick was never recorded explaining whether androids do, in fact, dream of electric sheep—a question that the robot was asked repeatedly during its brief, intense period of display, often in Club VALIS, a soundproof room fitted out to look like Dick’s living room. The book recounts a number of conversations that seem outstandingly Dickian, including this one between the robot head and a blogger named Paul Jones:

JONES: What do you think about the president?

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PHIL: Which president do you have in mind?

JONES: Where are we now?

PHIL (looking around the room): We appear to be in my living room. (Pause.) It could be a simulacrum, though (pause), but why would the authorities bother?

Sometimes, the bot’s responses were almost too realistic. “It looked very much like my dad,” his daughter Isa told the Los Angeles Times a few years after first meeting the bot. “When my name was mentioned it launched into a long rant about my mother. ... It was not pleasant.” In other cases, Dick’s words were confusing at best: Once, when its conversation partner said that she was the president of the University of Memphis, the robot replied, “I knew he was president, but I never knew of the University of Memphis.”

Intriguingly, though, some observers recall the exchange not as a hiccup, but as a triumph, with the Dick head cracking a joke: “I’ve heard of the president, but I’ve never heard of the University of Memphis.” “Instead of nonsense,” Dufty writers, “they remember a witty rebuff. They found an intelligent message where there was none. They saw a face in the clouds.” In many ways, this reaction harkens back to the early “chatbot” program Eliza, a “Rogerian therapist” developed in the 1960s by MIT’s Joseph Weizenbaum. Eliza’s responses are “computational sleight of hand,” Dufty says: It has simply been taught some tricks to make it appear as though it is holding a conversation. Eliza has no intelligence, no matter how much time you and your middle-school friends spent in the computer lab trying to trick Eliza into saying dirty things.

Yet Weizenbaum was alarmed that many people seemed to believe, or want to believe, that Eliza possessed some real intelligence. They were open, confessional, with the program. Weizenbaum’s secretary once asked him to leave the room so she could be alone with Eliza. “The idea that people entrust the computer, or are even motivated to discuss intimate thoughts with a computer … just sort of shocked me,” he said in 1973. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, has written about the “Eliza effect,” or the tendency to project humanity on a machine. In some ways, the overly charitable ways that people reacted to the PKD bot demonstrates this idea: They were eager to see real intelligence, or at least wit, in the machine.

“If people attributed human qualities to the android even when humanness was lacking, that is a testament to the power of the art,” Dufty writes. But if you know how the robot stuffing is made, some of the magic evaporates. The question, then, is how long robots will seem magical and powerful to the laity. Much of our science fiction—quite a bit of it derivative of Dick’s ahead-of-its-time writing—explores the overlap between man and machine. But if the work of Hanson and others leads to humanoid robots becoming commonplace, and if most people come to have a working understanding of the machines, will that projection of humanity continue? You may joke that Siri is the only person who truly understands you, but you don’t actually believe it.

But if humans are comfortable with their understanding of robots, what about the robots’ understanding of themselves? Dick wrote in Electric Sheep and elsewhere about machines that believe they are human. His android was programmed to call itself a “robotic portrait,” and any AI that could mimic human consciousness is far in the future. If and when that time comes, it would be nice to have Philip K. Dick around for guidance. Luckily, Hanson Robotics rebuilt the PDK bot head in 2011, and it’s ready to field our questions once again.

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How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection by David F. Dufty. Henry Holt.

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