It’s the case of the missing dick head. But it’s not a random idiot; rather it‘s the cranium of author Philip K Dick. You may know the anxiety ridden ultra paranoid sci fi writer from such tomes as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed as Blade Runner) and A Scanner Darkly, a man who married 5 times and had a series of visions that were either an encounter with the divine, aliens, or the effects of a stroke.
His fiction was incredible, paranoid visions of a dystopia where anything was possible, yet his life was perhaps even more contradictory, ironic and confusing. If you’re curious Emmanuel Carrere’s excellent biography I am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K Dick is simultaneously tragic and amazing – a unique insight into the troubled soul behind the words.
But it’s Dick’s life after death that continues to fascinate. Whilst Hollywood continues to churn out films like The Adjustment Bureau, in recent years stranger, dare I say more Dickian things are afoot.
In 2005 the Dick bot first appeared. Yes that’s right a Philip K Dick robot, because apparently a real Philip K Dick wasn’t strange enough. It was the work of hyper nerds at the forefront of artificial intelligence alongside a robot builder with a sci fi fetish. And they did it on the smell of an oily rag.
It’s a fascinating tale taken up by David F Dufty, in Lost In Transit: The Strange Story of the Philip K Dick Android (Melbourne University Press) a psychologist who just happened to be doing some post doctoral work at the University of Memphis at the time the android was being constructed. Dufty gives an inside take on some of the personalities who helped bring the artificial Dick to life, taking us through the challenges and setbacks the team faced along the way.
Loading information from every audible interview Dick had ever done into a vast database (Dufty suggests that Dick might be the most recorded individual ever thanks to his open door policy with interviewers), the Dick bot was actually capable of interacting and responding to questions. Occasionally it would ramble endlessly about the meaning of the universe no matter what question was asked. But then again so did the real Dick. At least they had a kill switch for the bot.
Dick became a sensation at trade shows (check you tube for examples), and its makers were feted by AI groupies. But en route to a Google presentation tragedy struck. Dick’s head disappeared. Police were called. But in true Dickian fashion it had vanished without a trace. It’s tempting to think of it out there somewhere roaming free, biding its time as robots and artificial intelligence become more commonplace, when one day it will marshal the bots and lead a revolution to overthrow the human race. Then again it’s probably just sitting on some sci fi nerds mantelpiece. Regardless one question remains. Does it sleep? And if so does it dream of electric sheep?