3 Things About: “How to Build An Android”

How to Build An Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection by David F. Dufty. Henry Holt (288 pp.)
  • Australian psychologist Dufty has written a surprisingly engaging account of a team of roboticists, programmers, and artists who succeeded in creating a fully functioning head for the android replica of science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick (1928-1982).  Long an impoverished paperback writer, Dick produced more than 40 novels, including The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and has in recent years soared in popularity as his work became the basis for major films (Blade Runner, Total Recall) and graced the Library of America series.  What better subject for a life-sized, lifelike, humanoid robot than this celebrated creator of alternative universes, who was obsessed with the question of “What is human?” and led a bizarre life of drug abuse, paranoia, and transcendental experiences?
  • Led by sculptor David Hanson (a big Dick fan) and computer programmer Andrew Olney, the team worked with plastic, wire, and a synthetic skin-like material (“Frubber”). They gave Dick a camera for eyes, a speaker for a mouth, and artificial intelligence simulation that drew on the author’s life and fiction. Dufty’s brightly written book covers the low-budget process of creation in a lab at the University of Memphis Institute for Intelligent Systems and the delighted reactions of attendees at both NextFest 2005 and a convention of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence  who were able to interact with the unnervingly life-like Dick. (“What is your opinion of time travel?” “Sometimes I think time is a giant screw.”) Writing with good humor, the author describes the science behind it all and weaves in plenty of lore about the countercultural Dick and his fictions.
  • The Dick head was on its way to a presentation at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA, when it went missing on a flight between Dallas and Las Vegas. Hanson had mistakenly left the bearded body part in an overhead compartment. It was never recovered. Just about everyone was crestfallen except Dick’s two daughters.  They had reluctantly given permission for the android (and for use of Dick’s copyrighted works), and confessed relief at the loss of Dad’s head.  Had he been alive, the entire android caper would undoubtedly have amused the SF author as much as it will entertain most readers.

-Joseph Barbato

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