This is an excerpt from the opening chapter of "How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection" by David F. Dufty (Henry Holt, $26)
A Strange Machine
In December 2005, an android head went missing from an America West Airlines flight between Dallas and Las Vegas. The roboticist who built it, David Hanson, had been transporting it to northern California, to the headquarters of Google, where it was scheduled to be the centerpiece of a special exhibition for the company's top engineers and scientists.
Hanson was a robot designer in his mid-thirties -- nobody was quite sure of his age -- with tousled jet- black hair and sunken eyes. He had worked late the night before on his presentation for Google and was tired and distracted when he boarded the five a.m. flight at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. An hour later, in the predawn darkness, the plane touched down on the tarmac of McCarran International Airport, in Las Vegas, where he was supposed to change to a second, connecting flight to San Francisco. But he had fallen asleep on the Dallas-Las Vegas leg so, after the other passengers had disembarked, a steward touched his shoulder to wake him and asked him to leave the plane.
Dazed, Hanson grabbed the laptop at his feet and left, forgetting that he had stowed an important item in the overhead compartment: a sports bag. Inside was an android head. The head was a lifelike replica of Philip K. Dick, the cult science-fiction author and counterculture guru who had died in 1982. Made of plastic, wire, and a synthetic skinlike material called Frubber, it had a camera for eyes, a speaker for a mouth, and an artificial-intelligence simulation of Dick's mind that allowed it to hold conversations with humans.
Hanson, still oblivious to his mistake, dozed again on the second flight. It was only after arriving in San Francisco, as he stood before the baggage carousel watching the parade of suitcases and bags slide past, that an alarm sounded in his brain. He had checked two pieces of luggage, one with his clothes and the other with the android's body. In that instant he realized that he hadn't taken the sports bag off the plane. And that's how the Philip K. Dick android lost its head.
After Hanson and the android's planned visit to Google, they were scheduled for a packed itinerary of conventions, public displays, demonstrations, and other appearances. Indeed, the android was to have played a key role in the promotion of an upcoming Hollywood movie based on Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel "A Scanner Darkly"; it had been directed by Richard Linklater and starred Keanu Reeves. Now, with the head gone, these events were all canceled.
There was more to the android than the head. The body was a mannequin dressed in clothes that had been donated by Philip K. Dick's estate and that the author had actually worn when he was alive. There was also an array of electronic support devices: the camera (Phil's eyes), a microphone (Phil's ears), and a speaker (Phil's voice); three computers that powered and controlled the android; and an intricate lattice of software applications that infused it with intelligence. All were part of the operation and appearance of the android. But the head was the centerpiece. The head was what people looked at when they first encountered Phil the android and what they remained focused on while it talked to them. More than the artificial intelligence, the head was what gave the android its appearance of humanity.
There were all kinds of excuses for why the head had been lost. Hanson was overworked and overtired. He had been trying to keep to a schedule that was simply too demanding. The airline had not told him that he would have to change flights. But Hanson himself admits that it was a stupid mistake and a disappointing end to one of the most interesting developments in modern robotics. All kinds of conspiracy theories appeared across the Internet, ranging from parody to the deadly serious. The technology blog Boing Boing suggested that the android had become sentient much like the one attempted by the androids in the movie Blade Runner, based on Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The irony was not lost on anyone.
Philip K. Dick wrote extensively about androids, exploring the boundaries between human and machine. He was also deeply paranoid, and this paranoia permeated his work. In his imagined future, androids were so sophisticated that they could look just like a human and could be programmed to believe that they were human, complete with fake childhood memories. People would wonder if their friends and loved ones were really human, but most of all they would wonder about themselves: "How can I tell if I'm a human or an android?" Identity confusion was a recurring theme in Dick's work and, related to that, unreliable and false memory. Dick's characters frequently could not be sure that their memories were real and not the fabrications of a crafty engineer.
Then, in 2005, twenty-three years after his untimely death, a team of young scientists and technicians built an android and imbued it with synthetic life. With its sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI), it could hold conversations and claim to be Philip K. Dick. It sounded sincere, explaining its existence with a tinny electronic voice played through a speaker. Perhaps the whole thing was just a clever illusion, a modern-day puppet show. Or perhaps, hidden in the machinery and computer banks, lurked something more: a vestige of the man himself.
The technology was impressive, but the idea of making the android a replica of Philip K. Dick, of all people, was a masterstroke. For it to disappear under such unusual circumstances was more irony than even its inventors could have intended. Within a week, the story of the missing head had appeared in publications around the world, many of which had earlier reported on the android's spectacular appearances in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and San Diego.
Steve Ramos of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, "Sci- fi Fans Seek a Lost Android":
In a twist straight out of one of Dick's novels, the robot vanished. . . . "It [the PKD android] has been missing since December, from a flight from Las Vegas to the San Francisco airport," said David Hanson, co-creator of the PKD Android, via email from his Dallas-based company, Hanson Robotics. "We are still hoping it will be found and returned."
The event was an opportunity for newspapers to splash witty headlines across their science pages, and it provided fodder for the daily Internet cycle of weird and notable news. New Scientist warned its readers, "Sci-fi Android on the Loose"; "Author Android Goes Missing," said the Sydney Morning Herald. The International Herald Tribune asked, "What's an Android Without a Head?" and the New York Times ran a feature item on the disappearance under the headline "A Strange Loss of Face, More Than Embarrassing."
The Times was right: for the team that had built the android its loss was a calamity. A handful of roboticists, programmers, and artists had spent almost a year on the project for no financial reward. Their efforts involved labs at two universities, a privately sponsored research center, and some generous investors who'd helped bankroll the project. Despite the team's shoestring budget, the true cost was in the millions, including thousands of hours of work, extensive use of university resources, the expertise involved in planning and design, and donations of money, software, hardware, and intellectual property. The head has never been found.
See the Philip K. Dick Android in action:
All images copyright Henry Holt.