Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rebuilding Phil Dick Wholesale—a True Story

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

The Philip K. Dick Android—a collaboration between private roboticist David Hanson and a team of intelligence researchers at the University of Memphis—gained great notoriety when it debuted in 2003. People jockeyed for a chance to speak with it for just one or two minutes. Audiences cheered when it said something unpredictable, profound, or even hurtful. Though rudimentary, viewers glimpsed in “Phil” a possible shape of their future.

Then, in 2005, bound for its highest profile gig yet, the android vanished.

Author David F. Dufty, now an Australian government researcher, was present in Memphis for the android’s bizarre life, and even stranger disappearance. Though not a participant, Dufty knew the research team well enough to recount a thorough insider’s perspective. And though he swears he has inserted not one word of fiction, this heady blend of computer science, mechanical engineering, psychology, and art has more twists than PKD’s legendary novels.

Art Graesser, founder of Memphis’ Institute of Intelligence Studies, dedicated his life to understanding and recreating the rational mind. David Hanson, a Dallas graduate student and entrepreneur, felt it didn’t matter how intelligent Artificial Intelligence became if humans couldn’t feel comfortable interacting with it. The two found kindred spirits in each other, and together opened the door to one of modern technology’s strangest and most exciting enterprises.

The decision to build an android in PKD’s likeness was extremely meta. An android image of a writer who envisioned a world where people wondered if they were androids? Really? Then they displayed it in an illusion of the house in which PKD came to believe all reality was an illusion. Dick, a paranoid amphetamine addict with a gregarious temperament and a flair for the dramatic, could not have choreographed a better science fiction spectacle.

Perhaps he did choreograph it. Dufty does not assume readers recognize PKD’s strange, sometimes opaque writings, and walks us through many of Dick’s recurrent themes. Among the most important, PKD believed that intelligent machines were not only inevitable, but imminent. But intelligence was nothing, a parlor trick. We would only know an android by its failure of empathy, or what we could call “humanity.”

Immersed as he was in Cold War hysteria, amplified by his drug habit and countercultural ties, Dick believed he was subject to constant surveillance. This paranoia, with strong anti-state overtones, pervades his work, making him a perennial favorite of libertarian types. But as he came to believe in a machine intelligence dominating all apparent reality, his visions, and his fiction, progressively blurred the line between science and metaphysics.

So it makes sense that PKD could have planned his own resurrection as a remarkably lifelike machine. Even the fact that “Phil” regularly appeared with his scalp off, showing his complex inner workings, supports such a paradox. How better to soothe the masses, and prevent them fearing they would be exposed as androids, then to expose yourself first? See, people? I’m nothing like you. You’re safe. Stop asking questions and go about your day.

Popular science fiction has feared the collapsing gap between man and machine. Consider The Terminator or the revamped Battlestar Galactica. In mass media, when we can’t tell people from devices, we assume the devices will prove predatory. Dick dared suggest the issue wouldn’t be so cut and dried. Who’s to say the machines wouldn’t have more to fear from humanity? So, like one of his own replicants, the Philip K. Dick android escaped.

By no means was the android an unqualified success. Only the face and head were articulated; the body was basically a mannequin. Its speech recognition technology was vulnerable to even slight interference. Worse, because PKD left a massive corpus of publications and interview transcripts, the language generation software could hit a recursive loop, lapsing into a trance or spouting inane, interminable monologues. It required constant human supervision.

But it also came closer than any artificial device, before or since, to bridging the gap between humans and our creations. It substantially disproved two generations of technological philosophy, which thought humans would fear machines that proved too lifelike; indeed, people psychologically imbued it with human traits it didn’t yet have. People wanted to believe this was the reborn visage of a unique, cultic novelist.

Dufty seamlessly merges journalism, science, and literary criticism in a history of one of recent technology’s most remarkable events. He makes us dream of what seemed possible just a few years ago. And he makes us hope we might live to see those possibilities once again.

On a related topic:
Why Cleverbot Proves Computers Should Remain Stupid

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