The first conversational android – that is to say, the first intelligent humanoid robot - was assembled at the University of Memphis in the summer of 2005.
The head of the android, built by Texan designer David Hanson, was a lifelike replica of the late science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick. Under the skin, Hanson had installed an intricate lattice of motors, hooks, levers and wires that controlled the android’s facial expressions. It had a camera for eyes that fed into a facial recognition system, so that it could turn its head to watch you.The android’s “ear” was a microphone so that when visitors spoke to it, their words would be sent back through a bank of computers where an intelligent response could be computed. The android would reply in real time through a speaker that operated as its mouth. The android’s creators called it “Phil".
The real Philip K. Dick was a cult 20th-century science fiction writer who has become far more famous since his death in 1982 than he ever was in life, although he lived long enough to see his classic dystopian novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into the film Blade Runner.
By making an android that resembled Dick, Hanson was not only paying homage to a science fiction master, he was directly referencing Dick’s own work. Dick pioneered and perfected the reality-bending sci fi story, using devices such as drug-induced alternate realities, hidden identities, and various kinds of simulacra. In a Dickian story, robots might believe that they are human, or conversely, humans may wonder if they are androids. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the character Rachael Rosen (played by Sean Young in the film) is an android but thinks she is a human. Dick’s novel We Can Build You explores the possibility of making android replicas of historical figures for educational purposes. Could Dick possibly have imagined that the first historical figure to be reincarnated in android form would be himself?
Under the surface
By 2005, several of Dick’s works of fiction had been adapted to film, such as Total Recall, Minority Report and Next. The latest was A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Keanu Reeves. The studio recruited the android as part of the publicity, and so the android Dick was to appear at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego to promote an adaptation of the real Dick’s work.
The similarities betweem the two were growing. Not only was the android's "brain" based on the real Dick’s mind (by mining an extensive collection of interviews and between Dick and various journalists, as well as analysing his large body of fiction), but in Dick’s novel, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, the main character Jason Taverner mentions at one point that all his personal data has been stored at a massive computer facility in Memphis, Tennessee. Thirty years later, all the available data about Dick was in fact stored on a server in Memphis, Tennessee.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the eponymous androids have escaped and made their way back to earth – their place of origin – in a doomed quest for immortality.
In December 2005, Hanson was transporting the android head from Dallas to San Francisco when it disappeared en route. After a series of frantic phone calls between airports and to various airline staff, the sports bag containing the android head was located in Orange County, California: the place where Dick spent the last years of his life and where he died. The android was placed on another flight to San Francisco to be reunited with Hanson, but it never arrived. It has not been found since.
Hanson has since built a new android, which is in many ways an improvement on the original. But there are subtle differences and it does not have the same artificial intelligence as the earlier android. It has its own life and personality. It was not “Phil.” One might say that Hanson has built a replica of a replica of the great man, a development that no doubt would have pleased Dick, had he learned of it during his life.
In fact, the numerous synchronicities between the android and the author were in keeping with Dick’s worldview, as he was prone to finding parallels between reality and fiction, particularly in either the Bible or his own work.
Beneath the levels of recursion and irony in the story of the Philip K. Dick android was another, more human, and equally compelling story: the tale of a small group of dedicated young people with limited funds but who had know-how and an audacious vision. They achieved their goal and enjoyed a brief arc of fame before it all unravelled and the android head was lost.
Naturally, the irony of a lost Philip K. Dick android threw the robot into limelight once more. Just like Dick himself, the android became more famous in death than it ever was in life.
Losing the Head of Philip K Dick by David Dufty is published by Oneworld.