Books : reviews

David Dufty.
Losing the Head of Philip K Dick (== Lost in Transit == How to Build an Android) .
Oneworld. 2011

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 24 August 2014

In 2005 a group of young robot designers and computer scientists dreamed up a fantastic, audacious idea: to build an android modelled on Philip K. Dick, the iconic sci-fi guru.

After countless hours tinkering with fake flesh and animatronic motors and turning the writer’s opus into a computer brain, the android was brought eerily to life. It would ‘watch’ people as they approached, ‘recognize’ their faces, answer their questions in Dick’s own words. Then, things went horribly wrong. A roboticist on his way to Google HQ for a special presentation left the android’s head on a flight to Las Vegas. The head of Philip K. Dick was lost.

In a story that could have been lifted from one of Philip K. Dick’s celebrated novels, which have been made into such films as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau, Australian writer and psychology PhD David Dufty brings to light the incredible but true events surrounding the android’s creation and disappearance. Along the way, he explores how the science of robotic ‘resurrection’ will soon meet our very real future.

In 2005, a disparate group of computer AI and robotics researchers got together, and decided to build an android recreation of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. They chose Dick because they had access to a huge archive of his writings and in-depth interviews, allowing them to build an Eliza-esque system that could converse in a Dick-like manner by drawing on this large database. The project went well, drawing in fascinated crowds, until the fateful day they lost the android’s head…

This is another of those “true-life fly-on-the-wall” tales of heroic scientific and engineering endeavour. It is an interesting, if somewhat pedestrian, recounting of a true story that could never be told as fiction, as it is too unlikely. Here the author is himself a researcher, rather than a journalist, so we get fewer of those irritating vignettes common to works that focus mainly on the people.

Yet there is a disappointing lack of technical detail. For example, we get a few transcripts of amazing conversations the android held with the public (although presumably heavily edited: there is a YouTube video of an actual “conversation” that is impressive, but less “intelligent”; there is also a website with some photos), but we get only a glimpse of what is going on inside the android’s “head” (the relevant computers are actually in a box to one side) at the time.

One interesting piece of technical discussion is about the so-called “uncanny valley” of near-lifelike, and hence creepy, robots. David Hanson, the developer of the life-like animated head, disliked the notion, so delved into the literature to find the evidence. Apparently, there was none: it was originally just an hypothesis, that then got taken up. Moral: always go back to the source material!

Moral 2: always make sure you have all your belongings with you when leaving the plane. The most I’ve left behind is a book. A head is a whole other problem.