Wednesday , February 28 2024
The short and very weird life of a real-life android that could have easily been written by Philip K. Dick himself.

Book Review: “How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection” by David F. Dufty

In the realm of science fiction, Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) is on the short list of the all-time greatest authors. He is certainly my favorite, and has proven to be quite popular in Hollywood as well. Currently there are at least 10 PKD stories that have been turned in to films, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990) and Minority Report (2002). So when I discovered How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection by David F. Dufty, I was very intrigued. I had no idea of what I was in for when I began, but found the tale to be fascinating, thought-provoking and highly entertaining. It actually reminded me of one of Dick’s own stories, except that all of the events in it really happened.

Dufty’s account follows the journey of an android named Phil, modeled after Dick. Actually, he begins with the sad denouement to the situation, at least as it stands today. The first sentence of the book reads: “In December 2005, an android head went missing from an America West Airlines flight between Dallas and Las Vegas.” That would be what one wag inevitably named the “Dick-head.”

From this Dufty takes us to the campus of the University of Memphis in 2003. Through a series of events, this is where the android was developed. The major players were roboticist David Hanson and a PhD student by the name of Andrew Olney. They were drawn into professor Art Graesser’s Institute for Intelligent Systems, or IIS. The IIS was a project to further development of Artificial Intelligence, or as Stephen Spielberg called it in his 2001 film, A.I.

The major achievement of the IIS at the time was a program called AutoTutor, which is exactly what it sounds like. The goal was to create a program which could teach students any subject. Hanson’s idea was to take this program, and make it the brains of a robot, or android. But who should the mechanical man be? For anyone who is familiar with the works of Philip K. Dick, their choice of the man who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Blade Runner), the choice was obvious.

Following this introduction, Dufty takes us through the design process. For an undertaking of this magnitude, things moved forward at a rapid pace. One of the more amusing inspirations for the android came from a highly unlikely source. In the early 00’s, there was a very popular “As seen on TV” gag gift called the Billy Bass. Remember those ubiquitous singing fish? One of them played an important part in the beginning.

Building a realistic-looking artificial man was not that much of a challenge, and once they got permission from Dick’s daughters, the head was relatively easy to produce as well. With the AutoTutor template, they had a basis for A.I. But how would one turn what is at it’s core a super-textbook into Philip K. Dick? I thought their solution was genius. The group scanned all of Dick’s written words, be they novels, short stories, articles, or whatever, then uploaded it in to the program. With all of this in place, Phil could now converse as an approximation of the real man.

I would have loved to have seen this, but Phil’s time with us was very brief. The android was publicly debuted at NextFest 2005, in Chicago. The set-up sounded fantastic. The exhibit was called Club VALIS, after Dick’s final major work, VALIS. Club VALIS was designed to look like Dick’s living room, circa 1974. Dufty explains that 1974 was chosen because of the “revelatory experiences” Dick had that year, which led directly to books such as Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS.

After his success in Chicago, Phil went back to the University of Memphis, where the researchers continued to tweak him. Then it was off to Pittsburgh, PA for another convention, the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. Phil’s third public appearance was in front of the crowd who may have appreciated him the most, at Comic-Con in San Diego, CA.

Comic-Con is the convention for sci-fi enthusiasts of all stripes, and Phil was a star. His appearance was originally planned to promote Richard Linklater’s film of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (2006). The movie was behind schedule though, and would not appear until the following year. Since the event was already scheduled, they decided to go through with it. There was a panel set up in front of the audience, including Phil, who answered questions about the upcoming film.

Again, this is something that I sure wish I had had the opportunity to see. Phil kind of got stuck when answering questions about Blade Runner. Dufty’s description of the scene is too lengthy to go into here, but the scene he creates leaves all kinds of room for interpretation, if one is so inclined. Even though Phil seems to have malfunctioned, in the world of PKD, sometimes the “malfunctions” are the actual truth peeking out from a manufactured truth.

Following Comic-Con, Hanson took Phil with him to Dallas, where Club VALIS was being stored. Hanson’s desire was to keep Phil there, in Dallas from then on. Then Google called, and he could not resist. He booked a flight from Dallas to San Francisco, which included a change-over in Las Vegas. With a mistake that will surely haunt him for some time to come, he left Phil behind in the overhead compartment when he changed planes.

That plane went on to Orange County, CA, where the head was discovered in a sports bag. It is safe to say that the bearded, disembodied head caused a bit of consternation among the unwitting staff. Hanson conferred with the lost baggage people in S.F., and was assured that Phil’s head would be forwarded to him there on the next plane out. He waited, to no avail. Later he was told that the plane was diverted at the last minute to Seattle. So he got on the phone with the people in Washington, who had no idea of what he was talking about. Phil’s head was gone.

In the aftermath, Hanson filed a $750,000 lawsuit against American Airlines. He lost, which was to be expected, since if you leave something behind in an overhead compartment, it is your own fault. The only reason I even bothered mention this is because of the judge’s bizarre ruling. Judge Andrew J. Guilford wrote a multi-paragraph conclusion, in which he referenced Isaac Asimov, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Elysian fields, and Philip K. Dick’s own Total Recall and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It is hands-down the weirdest court decision I have ever read.

In the end, I found How to Build an Android to be a story worthy of Mr. Dick himself. The situation is improbable, yet plausible, there is mystery, intrigue, adventure, even hints of the supernatural. The short and very weird life of the android could have easily been written by PKD. So much so that in this new Picador soft cover edition of the original 2012 hardback, Dufty takes great pains to confirm that everything in the book actually happened.

In the end, this is just the story of a missing piece of baggage I suppose. Yet David F. Dufty has managed to take this event and turn it into a wonderfully engaging saga. If you are a fellow fan of PKD, How To Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection is an excellent addition to the bookshelf.

About Greg Barbrick

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One comment

  1. Thanks for the review, Greg. I’m glad you enjoyed it.