The first time I met David Hanson, he nearly knocked me over as he whizzed around a corner on a Segway. He was visiting the University of Memphis, in discussion with Andrew Olney, Art Graesser and others about plans to build an intelligent, talking android.
“You’re the robot guy!” I exclaimed in delight.
“I’m giving a talk downstairs this afternoon. Come along,” he offered generously, as if nothing would please him more than for me, a total stranger, to attend his demo of his latest robot head. I went to the demo and watched him make his creation, ‘Eva’ smile. The idea was that since Memphis had a large research team building conversational AI, and while Hanson, based in Texas, was building the most sophisticated robot heads, a psychology professor in Memphis had suggested that the two groups should come together to make an intelligent head.
What I didn’t know was that he had plans for the next robot, the ‘intelligent’ one, to make it in the likeness of pkd. It was a simple, brilliant twist.
phil was a cult twentieth century science fiction writer who has become far more famous since his death in 1982 than he ever enjoyed in life. He lived long enough to enjoy the beginning of his rise from obscurity into literary stardom with the making of the film Blade Runner, an adaptation of his classic dystopian novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It was the only film made of his work during his lifetime, but it was the first of many: Total Recall, Minority Report, Next, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, The Adjustment Bureau.
phil pioneered and perfected the reality bending scifi story from drug induced alternate realities to multi-layered hidden identities. In a philian story, androids may believe they are human, or conversely, humans may wonder if they are androids. For example in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The character Rachael Rosen is an android but thinks she is a human. Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in the film) uncovers the truth with an elaborate test for humanhood.
And so by making an intelligent android in the likeness of pkd, Hanson was referencing phil’s own work. But the echoes didn’t end there. The computer scientist Andrew Olney created a complex artificial intelligence program – the android’s “brain” – that was based on pkd. This was done by mining his novels as well as the large body of interviews and conversations between phil and various journalists and authors. The android’s AI used phil’s phraseology and if you said something to it, it would mine a huge database of pkd utterances to create a response something akin to what phil himself might have said.
It used voice recognition and speech synthesis to conduct a real-time conversation just as an android in a philian novel could behave like a human. And phil wondered if androids might not know they were androids, so too, the android made in his likeness pretended to be a human. It was remarkable on its own terms: the first intelligent, fully autonomous, conversational android. And beyond that, the fact that it was made in the likeness of the late, great pkd was a sort of geek in-joke.
Being a geek, I got the joke. And I mean that literally: when I first heard about the plans to build it, I laughed. But that wasn’t why I wrote a book about it. It wasn’t until events took a philian turn that nobody was expecting that it really grabbed me.