Saturday, 30 August 2014

book review: Losing the Head of Philip K Dick

David Dufty.
Losing the Head of Philip K Dick.
(aka Lost in Transit, aka How to Build an Android)
Oneworld. 2011

In 2005, a disparate group of computer AI and robotics researchers got together, and decided to build an android recreation of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. They chose Dick because they had access to a huge archive of his writings and in-depth interviews, allowing them to build an Eliza-esque system that could converse in a Dick-like manner by drawing on this large database. The project went well, drawing in fascinated crowds, until the fateful day they lost the android’s head…

This is another of those “true-life fly-on-the-wall” tales of heroic scientific and engineering endeavour. It is an interesting, if somewhat pedestrian, recounting of a true story that could never be told as fiction, as it is too unlikely. Here the author is himself a researcher, rather than a journalist, so we get fewer of those irritating vignettes common to works that focus mainly on the people.

Yet there is a disappointing lack of technical detail. For example, we get a few transcripts of amazing conversations the android held with the public (although presumably heavily editied: there is a YouTube video of an actual “conversation” that is impressive, but less “intelligent”; there is also a website with some photos), but we get only a glimpse of what is going on inside the android’s “head” (the relevant computers are actually in a box to one side) at the time.

One interesting piece of technical discussion is about the so-called “uncanny valley” of near-lifelike, and hence creepy, robots. David Hanson, the developer of the life-like animated head, disliked the notion, so delved into the literature to find the evidence. Apparently, there was none: it was originally just an hypothesis, that then got taken up. Moral: always go back to the source material!

Moral 2: always make sure you have all your belongings with you when leaving the plane. The most I’ve left behind is a book. A head is a whole other problem.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

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