How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection, by David F. Dufty

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NewImageHow to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection, by David F. Dufty is about the creation of the Philip K. Dick android head, and how it vanished.

Two people are chiefly responsible for making the Philip K. Dick android head: David Hanson, a sculptor/animatronic artist who makes lifelike rubber heads, and Andrew Olney, a software engineer who worked on natural language tutorial software. They teamed up at the University of Memphis, and with barebones funding, they built a robot head that looked like the late science fiction writer. The head had a plastic skull (made on a 3D printer). Motors, pulleys, and wires were attached to the skull, and to a special rubber that Hanson had formulated called "frubber," which mimicked the elastic properties of human skin. Face recognition software and a camera mounted on the robot gave the PKD android the ability to lock eyes with humans it conversed with.

To give the android the gift of gab, Olney uploaded a massive database of PKD's novels and interviews into a databased, which indexed the content. When a person spoke with the android, one of its multiple computers translated the speech into text. Another computer queried the database and synthesized something for the PKD android to say. Another computer controlled the android's frubber face as it recited the words.

Dufty does fine job of on-the-ground storytelling, presenting the late night coding and soldering sessions, mad-scrambles to meet deadlines, small and major victories, and petty bureaucratic hassles that Hanson, Olnet, and their colleagues experienced over the course of a couple of years.

Many people familiar with the PKD head know that it disappeared after Hanson left it in the overhead bin on a flight he was on, and forgot all about it until he was out of the airport. When he remembered and contacted the airline, the head was gone. It has never been recovered.

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Enthralling Books: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark

NewImage I’ve been a pretty serious Dick-head ever since a roommate gave me a copy of A Scanner Darkly 20 years ago. The drugs and dystopian SF hooked me. But it wasn’t until a few years later, in college at the University of Hawaii, that I discovered Philip K. Dick’s literary merit, a discovery that forever altered the course of my life.

I was buying books for an American Lit class: Frederick Douglass, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, nothing I was particularly excited about reading, but then, in the next shelf over, with the books for another section of the very same class, I see Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- as assigned reading. You know, the book Blade Runner is based on?

Like the movie, the novel features Rick Deckard (ever notice how his name sounds like the philosopher Rene Descartes?) who’s been recruited to ‘retire’ six androids in a single day. Spurred on by a nagging wife and a ‘mood organ’ that keeps him in his business-like manner, Deckard hits the mean, post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco in search of some of the most dangerous machines ever conceived of by man.

I dropped the boring section of the class the next day. Little did I know, my new professor, Robert Onopa, would connect Dick’s novel to some of the most influential American literature of the 20th century including T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and, in the process, save me from an existential crisis that threatened to swallow me whole.

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