In 2004, some robotics geeks and sci-fi fans built a functional robotic likeness of Philip K. Dick. It looked like Dick, dressed like Dick, and was completely autonomous. Capable of operating without the intervention of its makers, it could track people coming in and out of a room with face-recognition software, greeting those it knew. It could listen to conversation, and, using complex algorithms, could respond verbally using speech synthesis.
This “robotic portrait” was as much an art project as it was a feat of engineering. For several years, the android made public appearances — at conferences, comic conventions, Artificial Intelligence organizations, and so forth. In 2006, it mysteriously disappeared in transit to Mountain View, California, where it was to meet with some Google employees. Speculation abounded. Horrified, I imagined the android out in the world, having a hellish time of consciousness. Strange and poetic as it was, the story could have ended here.
And yet, the Philip K. Dick android has now been rebuilt. Behold:
The new android is being referred to as “New Phil.” Its vanished predecessor, “Old Phil.” To recap: a man who spends his career writing about about androids dies. Twenty years later, an android is made in his image, effectively bringing him back to life. That android disappears. A new one is built; at this point we’re three degrees of separation from the original. I can’t help but fantasize about a future model (New New New Phil?) becoming self-aware, and immediately being convinced that he is the real, original Phil. I mean, it literally reads like an actual Philip K. Dick story — life imitating art, imitating life.
The brain-boggling postmodern meta-irony is not lost on its makers, thankfully. On translating this particular writer — and not, say, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov — into an android, they explain, “An android of Philip K. Dick is a sort of paradox. It’s certainly what Hofstader would call a ‘tangled hierarchy.’ This is something that you don’t get by making an android out of any other science fiction writer.” They point out that Dick didn’t just write about androids; he wrote about people thinking they were androids, or androids thinking they were people, and everything in between. The terrible crux of Dick’s canon often hinges on the question, “what is the difference between being human, and being programmed to believe you are human?”
Still, it’s hard to guess what Dick, who died in 1982, might have thought of his robotic likeness. In a 1975 essay called, “Man, Android, and Machine,” he wrote:
“Within the universe there exist fierce cold things, which I have given the name ‘machines’ to. Their behavior frightens me, especially if it imitates human behavior so well that I get the uncomfortable sense that these things are trying to pass themselves off as humans but are not. I call them ‘androids,’ which is my own way of using that word. By ‘android’ I do not mean a sincere attempt to create in the laboratory a human being. I mean a thing somehow generated to deceive us in a cruel way, to cause us to think it to be one of ourselves. Made in a laboratory — that aspect is not meaningful to me; the entire universe is one vast laboratory, and out of it come sly and cruel entities which smile as they reach out to shake hands. But their handshake is the grip of death, and their smile has the coldness of the grave.”
Would New Phil — or for that matter, Old Phil — embody this “coldness of the grave” to his namesake? I can’t help but think of Jack Bohlen, in Martian Time-Slip, servicing the simulacra in his son’s school and having schizoid episodes where he believes that every person is secretly a machine, a mechanism. The profound sense of disconnect that this vision lends to his reality, the Philip K. Dick android does to me.
Dick’s books have been endlessly adapted to the screen, and yet this bearded machine does more to bring the philosophical mise-en-abyme of his work alive than any number of Darryl Hannahs or Arnold Schwarzeneggers (be they lurking in rainy alleyways or gun-fighting in the red-tinged Martian atmosphere) ever could. I mean, it is Philip K. Dick: both visually and theoretically. It’s a physical embodiment of everything he feared, loved, rhapsodized on, got paranoid about. It’s a “living” paradox; it’s science-fiction reality, a powerfully strange sculpture.
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