In 2005, David Hanson left Philip K. Dick’s head on a plane. Hanson, a roboticist, was en route to Google to present his team’s project— a painstakingly crafted android replication of the author, who died in 1982—when he changed planes and left behind a duffel bag. The robot’s head surfaced at a couple of airports around the American West before disappearing in Washington state, never to be found again.
Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the source material for Blade Runner—was both deeply engaged with issues of artificial intelligence, and deeply paranoid. That is to say, he was the science fiction writer for whom being transformed into an android, and then having your head lost to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of an airline, might be considered most fitting. In How To Build an Android, David F. Dufty explains how Dick was made into a machine by an endearingly nerdy group of roboticists. Dufty, who observed the development of the robot while a postdoc, uses the unlikely story to meditate on the state of robotics and artificial intelligence. In particular, he describes the peculiar way humans interact with machines—and what it takes to make us feel as though a robot is alive.
The Philip K. Dick project began in 2004. Hanson, then a graduate student at the University of Dallas, brought an artistic background to robotics, with his invention of a (relatively) true-to-life synthetic skin he named “Frubber.” One of his early robot heads was modeled on himself, a couple of others on then-girlfriends. K-Bot, based on a now-ex named Kristen, displayed then-remarkable ability to express emotion. (Making a robot head out of your beloved is the futuristic equivalent of a sonnet, it seems.)
At a conference, he got to know roboticists from the University of Memphis who were working on an educational program called AutoTutor. If they combined Hanson’s well-crafted heads and AutoTutor’s basic conversational abilities, the roboticists decided, they could create an android—and why not craft it in the form of a science fiction writer preoccupied with the line between man and machine? (In the book, a graduate student who jokes about calling it “the Dick head” is gently corrected.)
Hanson is a bit of a robo-rebel: He argues that the widely accepted principal of the Uncanny Valley—that as machines look more realistic, they become more unsettling—has no basis in reality. This unorthodox position buoys his position that developing humanlike robots is vital, as it will allow for better interaction with people. But not everyone in robotics agrees that humanoid forms are a worthwhile pursuit, given the significant obstacles: Locomotion on two legs is incredibly challenging to replicate, as is the human face. There are further divides over how a robot should be able to think or act.
One of the most famous questions in robotics is the Turing test, which asks whether computers will ever be able to think. Since Alan Turing first posed the notion in 1950, it has spawned a body of philosophical and technical discussion, plus a yearly competition, called the Loebner Prize, seeking the first artificial intelligence indistinguishable from a human in a text-based conversation.
“For Dick, the biggest problem with the Turing test was that it placed too much emphasis on intelligence,” Dufty writes. “Dick believed that empathy was more central to being human than intelligence, and the Turing Test did not measure empathy.” Instead, Dick imagined in Electric Sheep the “Voigt-Kampff test,” which attempts to separate machines from men by provoking emotional responses.
The Philip K. Dick android would have failed both exams. But for many people who encountered the robot, that didn’t matter.