The title of one of Philip K Dick's most famous novels is also a question. Asked since at least the days of Alan Turing--do androids dream of electric sheep? Can a computer think? Separately, the world of robotics has largely dismissed the humanoid robot as quaint; purpose-built monsters are the order of the day, and if socialized machines are required, just render a cute face on a monitor. Besides, the premise of the Uncanny Valley ensures that androids will be too creepy to be accepted.
David Hanson and Andrew Olney, backed by the University of Memphis and FedEx, didn't agree. And who better than to demonstrate their opposing view than a conversable recreation of a certain, late, genius? No, not Alan Turing!
Philip K. Dick (PKD) meets his destiny in Patrick Dufty's *How to Build an Android*. Not just as a robotic resurrection, or even an advanced AI capable of holding unique conversations with human visitors--his head became lost luggage in Orange County, a suitable end to this particular simulacra. As for Dufty, he was a postdoc associated with the builders. With his rare insider view, the advanced reading copy (ARC) shows promise.
The book reads as a story, including the author's own adventures in trying to track the head of Philip K. Dick (as opposed to bringing me the head of Alfredo Garcia--and yes, there is a Peckinpah reference). At the same time, Dufty avoids purple prose or many references to cinema. His subject is focused on the first Dick droid and his creators, so don't expect a sweeping round of the field of robotics, or of the second droid built in 2011. While a large part of the story covers the creation of the robot, no schematics or specs are to be found.
The book itself is laid out with an attractive cover and page design. However, it stumbles a bit from the beginning. Formula rhetorical writing teaches that a speaker needs to establish their credentials up front. Not always best to follow one formula--for a narrative, credibility comes from good storytelling. The introduction of the book should be relocated so readers can get straight to the punchy first chapter. Author's own involvement can be worked intrinsically into the action, and then summarized as biography at the end.
Stories move along when the prose tightens up. Dufty's story is informative, but the flow clogs up when it should be sweeping me along. His prose is periodically plugged with repetitive words, such as the same name repeated three or four times in as many sentences. Transitions between those sentences, their paragraphs, and the chapters can also smooth out. Finally, the author's voice needs to perk up and speak more actively.
Speaking of active voice, you can watch the PKD droids on the internet. I find both of them robotic. Hear the whine of the motors and the obvious speaker sound. Then again, the voice synthesizer does not exactly reproduce Dick or his speech compared to the recordings I've heard. Head movements are still too herky-jerky and limited in range to be human.
I bring this up to say that the ARC downplays these, well, uncanny aspects of the head. I am sympathetic with the book's argument that the Uncanny Valley hypothesis is far from established theory. I find the androids to be a novelty more than a neurosis. Yet I can't help notice YouTube comments, as well as quotes in the text of the book itself, confessing the creep factor. Dufty is largely taking an objective tone in his book, yet implies that the head is more lifelike than it actually appears to me on video.
Still, cosmetic technology has come a long way. The first head looks lightyears more realistic than the bust of Ian Holm in the original Alien. The second gen droid is even more personable with head hair and detailed blue eyes.
The guerilla nature of the project amazed me. The AI required high-level programming knowledge, while the bust used custom titanium parts. Otherwise, much of it was built without salary, sometimes with donated software or hardware, and often on precious spare time between university work. Indeed, the team only got the head up and running a mere four days before it was due to debut at NextFest. After it was lost, Hanson estimated the value of the prop at $750,000, but actual money paid thanks to all the volunteer work is somewhere along the lines of $30,000. Not bad!
PKD Robot No. 1 made three major public appearances before he bowed out for good. After promoting the film of A Scanner Darkly (see my review), Hanson was on the way to Google headquarters when he, er, left his head on an plane in Las Vegas. Although airline crews claim to have recovered PKD droid in Orange County, Hanson was given the run-around and the landmark bust remains unrecovered. The book takes the charitable position that the head was simply misplaced in transit to San Francisco. Reading between the lines of the loss, I suspect the head was stolen by airport personnel. Dufty does not mention any computer tracking. So it's only the baggage handlers' word that they ever loaded PKD onto a plane--a flight coincidentally rerouted away from San Francisco at the last minute. If that isn't conspiratorial enough for you, imagine heour hypothetical theif sold it to Iranian agents looking to capitalize on American technology. However wrong this all might be, I've thought up a line that Philip himself would be proud to compose.
When all is said and done, *How to Build an Android* composes for us one corner of the field of robotics. The PKD machine sounds far from being able to dream of electric sheep, but the art of a social simulacra appears much closer. And while his book needs some tweaks, Dufty does his part to bring the android dream to humanity.