Amazon’s “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” contains more than just a host of stories by the prolific science-fiction writer.
The anthology series has a star-studded cast, and although Dick died in 1982, it includes a couple of Easter egg references to the author of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” — the source material for “Blade Runner.”
In the episode “The Father Thing,” protagonist Charlie finds himself thinking that his father has been replaced by some kind of alien look-alike. And he’s not the only one — Charlie’s teacher winds up committing suicide because he thinks the same thing about his wife. In a nod to the author, Charlie’s paranoid but perceptive teacher is named Philip Dick.
Another nod to the author is found in the opening title sequence of “Electric Dreams.” Toward the end, a hooded figure appears — the computer-generated Dick. The “Electric Dreams” title sequence is full of weird, slightly twisted sci-fi visuals, and the twist on the Dick that appears in the sequence is that, as he pulls the hood off his head, he reveals that his face is attached to a series of mechanical parts. The imaginative author is, indeed, an android himself.
This might just be a nod to much of Dick’s writings, but it could also reference something that really happened. There actually is a robot Philip K. Dick head out there in the world. In fact, there are two of them — and one disappeared.
The story goes back to 2005, as Slate reports. Roboticist David Hanson, a graduate student at the University of Dallas, was the inventor of a relatively lifelike synthetic skin he called “frubber,” and creating it led him to build several robotic heads. Hanson met graduate students from the University of Memphis at a conference, where he showed off his robotic heads, and they showed off AutoTutor, an educational program that had some basic conversational capabilities for interacting with users. The group decided to combine the two technologies to try to build an android head that could interact with people.
Thus, the group made a painstaking, fairly accurate robotic bust of Dick, complete with the ability to converse with people. It was pretty lifelike, too, with a camera built into its eye that helped it search for faces and then turn to face people. The android could hold basic conversations about Dick’s work and ideas.
The android, which was described as an “interactive sculpture,” made several appearances and was even on a panel for the Richard Linklater film “A Scanner Darkly,” an adaptation of Dick’s novel, at San Diego International Comic-Con. Warner Bros. intended to send the android on a press tour to promote the movie, the New York Times reports.
It never happened, unfortunately. The Dick android head disappeared when Hanson was flying with it from Dallas to San Francisco. He was asleep when the plane landed in Las Vegas for a transfer he hadn’t expected. Groggily, Hanson grabbed his stuff — but accidentally left Dick in the overhead compartment.
When the mistake was realized, the airline had the head packed in a box and sent to San Francisco International Airport, but somehow, it never arrived.
As the Times reports, the android head took about six months to make and cost $25,000. Losing it was painful for Hanson. It strained his relationship with the author’s two daughters, who provided unpublished material for download into the head to give it with things to say. Fortunately, Hanson’s company, Hanson Robotics, rebuilt the head even better in 2010 — but nobody knows what happened to the original.
That hasn’t stopped people from speculating, though. The blog Fiction Circus posted an account of how the head was eventually recovered by Interpol, in the possession of a Russian software piracy syndicate called “Little Bear.” The blog, posted on April Fool’s Day in 2010, suggested the Russians had deleted the Dick data from the android head and replaced it with pirated music and video games.
“Electric Dreams” seems to imagine another possible outcome for the android head. It might be that Dick’s mechanical version never wound up in either a landfill or somebody’s living room at all. What if, instead, it acquired a new body, and found a way to go on among us?
One imagines that if Philip K. Dick was writing the story of what happened to his own android head, the tale might go something like that.
“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” is currently streaming on Amazon.