Monday, June 18, 2012

Bring Me the Head of Philip K. Dick

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

Blade Runner, a film that flopped when it was released in 1982, has since become legendary. It was made from a novel by Philip K. Dick (as were at least nine other movies, including Spielberg’s Minority Report and Arnold’s Total Recall.)  A highly productive California-based science fiction writer from the 1950s until his death in 1982, he inspired generations of other writers, notably fellow West Coasters William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson.  He still casts quite a shadow.  A hefty volume of his theories and observations (Exegesis) has recently been published, and the New York Times just ran a long 3-part series on Dick as a "sci-fi philosopher."

  As in Blade Runner, many of Dick’s stories involved androids and “replicants,” and the resulting confusions of identification and identity. This as well as other themes he explored made him a particular favorite among the sci-fi minded in computer, robotics and artificial intelligence fields. One of those was David Hanson, who was startling people with his android-ready heads with lifelike skin that internal motors could shape into realistic facial expressions. Another was Andrew Olney, who was programming robots capable of having realistic conversations as learning aids.

When they met in 2004, the idea to create a Philip K. Dick android was born. In a year, it was a reality. But even though a university lab and the FedEx Institute of Technology in Memphis became involved (the head of which one Halloween conducted his meetings in a Star Trek officer’s uniform)   this complex project was mostly accomplished with very little money by Hanson and Olney, motivated by the technical challenges, the possibilities they imagined, and the kick of recreating Philip K. Dick.

  Author David F. Dufty, himself a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Memphis lab when this was going on, tells a good story about the ups and downs, ins and outs of the project, which involves a fair amount of goofy mishaps, mostly due to the unforeseen (but easily foreseeable) quirks of mundane reality that androids (and their makers) have yet to master. That part of the story results in a conclusion which makes this almost mythic.

For Philip K. Dick was also famous for writing about conspiracies, and for believing they existed in the real world. (Then again, Watergate revelations in the 70s revealed that the government really had been spying on people like him.) So the threads of the story come together in one stranger than fiction event: on a flight to San Francisco for a demonstration at Google headquarters, his android head was left behind in an overhead bin.  Though an airline employee reported it found and on its way to its owner, it never arrived.  The android head of Philip K. Dick was never seen again.

  The geek-oriented or simply tech-curious will enjoy the descriptions of the innovative work that went into the project. With minimal jargon, Dufty makes the tech as well as the personalities part of the story flow, an admirable example for a growing genre covering a dominating industry: adventures in Tech World. He ably integrates Philip K. Dick’s biography and major works into the story, which makes it unique. The story itself reveals the classic relationship of sci-fi and new tech, as well as suggesting how surprisingly far towards the androids of fiction current technology is taking us. In focusing on Hanson (basically a sculptor and a hardware tinkerer) and Olney (a software guy) he chronicles another relationship of art and science.

  The book itself could have used more and better photos and illustrations, but otherwise it’s a fascinating account that transcends its specific subject.

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