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5 Things Philip Dick Got Right: A Total Recall of Electric Sheep

September 9, 2019
by Krissy Eliot

It was a half a century ago this year that Berkeley High grad and Cal drop-out Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? hit the shelves. Set in 2021, the story follows the systematic annihilation of renegade androids in a post-apocalyptic, nuclear-ravaged San Francisco. (In short: man made robot, robot outsmarted man, man crushed robot.) Though a work of fiction, the novel is revered to this day for its astute insights on the future of man and machine—perhaps because so much of the story has, in some form or another, become reality.

A bit of a paranoid himself, Dick, who died in 1982, was known for philosophizing about alternate realities, claiming that some of his fictional works “were in a literal sense true,” that he was simply documenting his experiences in parallel universes. In a talk he gave in 1977, Dick recalled seeing visions of himself living separate lives along the same timeline. He felt that each life he witnessed was a part of an elaborate computer simulation.

“We are living in a computer-programmed reality,” Dick said. “And the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed, and some alteration in our reality occurs.”

(A popular example of this is the Berenstein vs Berenstain Bears theory, which asserts that people remember different spellings of the popular children’s books because there was a glitch in the Matrix. Thus, the theory goes, some of us must have crossed over from parallel universes. In one universe, it’s Berenstein! In another, Berenstain!!!)

“We are living in a computer-programmed reality.”

In a diary entry from 1980, Dick claimed that he was getting very close to the secrets of the universe, and predicted that God would soon end him because of it. Two years later, he died of a stroke, never to write again. Or at least, that’s what happened to the PKD in our reality. Perhaps there’s another PKD still penning prophetic novels, only in another universe. (One can only hope.)


Obviously, not everything in Electric Sheep, adapted to the screen in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” actually happened. We haven’t colonized Mars (although NASA and Elon Musk are working on it), we don’t have a “mood organ” to instantly alter our moods (we just have recreational drugs and anti-depressants for that), and we aren’t stewing in the aftermath of nuclear war (though our president has boasted about how much “bigger and more powerful” our proverbial nuclear button is than other countries’).

But with 2021 only a couple of years away, Dick did get quite a few things right. It’s almost freaky.


A robot demonstration at the AI for GOOD Global Summit
Sophia, Hanson Robotics Ltd. speaking at the AI for GOOD Global Summit in 2017 // ITU Pictures from Geneva, Switzerland

We don’t have human/robot hybrids who are indistinguishable from real people, but we do have androids! And I’m not just talking about the iPhone’s archnemesis.

Though they’re not intelligent or realistic enough to escape an alien planet or run from the law (yet), we do have robots covered with fake skin, eyes, hair and who imitate our speech patterns and mannerisms.

Robotics pioneer Hiroshi Ishiguro has built what some have called the most human-like robots to date. In a video collaboration between British GQ and Gucci, shots of a well-dressed Ishiguro are interspersed with close-ups of one of his female humanoid creations. The android asks the viewer, “Can we not be the same, you and me? Robots are mirrors of your heart.”

The camera punches in on the robotic woman’s pale face, her lips a glossy red, her neck adorned with pearls. “Why are you scared of me?” she asks, her tone somewhat ominous. “Why do you need to feel superior?”


There’s also Tokyo’s famous robot receptionist who greets guests at a department store; the London Science Museum’s robot baby, programmed to sneeze, “breathe,” and kick its legs (her legs? his legs? what are the politics around robot gender identity?!?!); Sophia, the robo-lady who was recently made a citizen of Saudi Arabia; and let’s not forget the actual Philip K. Dick android, who talks fondly about keeping humans in a “people zoo.”

The jury is still out on what all of this means for humanoid rights and their place in our world, but if PKD were here today, it’s likely his predictions of our droid-ful future with droids would be cloudy with a chance of apocalypse.


Lego figurines pointing weapons

In Electric Sheep, protagonist Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter responsible for “retiring” AKA BRUTALLY MURDERING androids that have escaped from the colonies on Mars. His weapon of choice? A “laser tube,” later called “The M2019 PKD Detective Special” and “The Blaster” in the film adaptation Blade Runner.

Fans have drooled over and blogged about the weapon for decades, but the idea of a laser shooter has never been more than a flight of sci-fi fancy.

Until now.

Chinese researchers claim to have invented a legit laser gun that can set a target on fire from almost a kilometer away. Referred to as the ZKZM-500, the weapon can allegedly blast an invisible energy beam that seamlessly passes through windows and causes “instant carbonization” of human tissue—an experience that one researcher described as “beyond endurance.”

It’s theorized that the lasers will prove useful to Chinese anti-terrorism squads, covert military operations, and situations where police want to handicap criminals for arrest, according to the South China Morning Post.

But don’t panic—for now, the weapon is said to be “non-lethal” to humans and, possibly, to renegade androids. It’s also, according to some skeptics, totally bogus. But China isn’t alone; the U.S. and other major militaries have been working on laser technology for years. Even if China hasn’t made a bona fide weapon yet, someone will. Eventually.


A display of futuristic cards

Deckard didn’t get stuck in traffic jams when he was out hunting droids. He flew. Yeah! Even though you can’t pick one up at the local dealership, personal flying vehicles do exist… though they look less like cars and more like baby planes.

Cora, a sleek, white, electric air taxi with wings, can lift off like a helicopter and rise without a runway. It navigates using a combination of “self-flying software” and “expert human supervision.” There’s also Kitty Hawk’s aquatic “Flyer,” a machine that resembles a kind of soaring jet-ski. Japan has plans to begin test flights of its own flying car prototypes, and even General Motors has one in the making. Not to mention BlackFly which, after nearly a decade of development, is hoping to be on the market and accessible to your average (wealthy) consumer within the next year.

While some might see this as bunch of rich sci-fi nerds living out their dreams, others see flying personal vehicles as a necessary solution to overcrowded roads and highways.

“[The flying car] is coming because it has to,” said Robin Lineberger, the leader of Deloitte’s Aerospace & Defense industry practice, in an interview with Investor’s Business Daily. “We have no more room on the ground to move cars around.”

Of course, one could imagine that Federal Aviation Administration would take issue with all these new aircrafts soaring around willy-nilly. With the world racking up 1.25 million motor vehicle deaths a year on the road, one can only imagine the chaos that might ensue in the clouds.

In any case, personal-flyers are still too heavy for current batteries to power them, says The Verge, and many experts estimate that it’ll be decades before the flying cars can achieve longer flight and be made available to the public.

“They are a bit ridiculous,” said aerospace consultant Richard Aboulafia on personal flying vehicles. “We are talking about a 2040 story here.”

So Dick might have been a decades years off. I’ll give him a break.


A robot animal

In the fictional universe of Electric Sheep, entire species were Sham WoWed off the Earth’s surface by the ravages of nuclear war. Fortunately, in our non-fictional universe, we’ve escaped the scourge of radioactive fallout. So far, anyway. But we are getting a nice steam in greenhouse Earth.

Even sans nuclear armageddon, we’re in the midst of what some scientists are calling a sixth mass extinction—aka “biological annihilation” or a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.”

UC Berkeley scientists recently made a startling discovery: In the last century, 61 sites in the Mojave desert lost an average of 43 percent of their species, and 39 of the 135 breeding bird species are now less likely to be encountered—findings which the researchers said may indicate that “other things are out of balance.”

So what would be an artificial way for humans to restore equilibrium? In Electric Sheep, the answer is robo-animals, obviously!

While we haven’t reached a point where we’re forced to take in robot livestock, toads, owls, etc to replace extinct ones, we do have electric animals for sale—including monkeys, dogs, cats, and velociraptors. In America, it seems that robotic housepets are generally targeted at the lonely, elderly, or anyone else who wants but is unable to take care of a pet.

In Japan, electric animals are more commonplace, with some caring for their robotic pups as if they were flesh and blood. This year, a large Buddhist funeral service was held for many AIBO robot dogs that were broken beyond repair. AIBO first created the dogs in 1999, stopped making them in 2006, then stopped servicing them in 2014—which broke the hearts of many owners who had grown attached to their pets and are now forced to reconcile with their “passing.”

In Electric Sheep, Rick Deckard’s real sheep died of tetanus. Heartbroken and not wanting to live with the shame of having lost an animal under his watch, he got an electric sheep for companionship—later attributing consciousness to the creature and wondering to himself if electric sheep are able to dream. (Get it?!?!??!?!?)

Since the Bay Area is full of animals lovers (there are actually more dogs than babies in the city of San Francisco)—it’s not hard to imagine a post-apocalyptic Bay Area with electric-poodles and chihuahuas flying off the shelves. A robo-pup may be better than none.


An android of Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick android // Rasmus Lerdorf

In Electric Sheep, android bounty hunter Rick Deckard uses what’s called the Voigt-Kampff test to determine if someone is human or android. He presents his subjects with hypothetical situations where animals are killed or seriously injured, and then he uses activity in their eye-muscles and capillaries as a measure of empathy. If the subject shows empathy, they go free. If they don’t, he blasts them with the laser. HIGH STAKES.

Even before Dick wrote the book, however, there was a little thing called The Turing Test, a thought experiment proposed in 1950 by mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing.

Turing, considered to be the pioneer of A.I., wanted to figure out if computers could think, so he imagined a test in which human evaluators would interact with a machine via typed messages and judge whether the subject they were interacting with was human or computer. If the evaluator couldn’t tell the difference, the machine passed the test; if they could tell, the machine failed.

Of course, the computers in the 1950s were so big and full of knobs, switches, and vacuum tubes that using them was like manning a submarine; they could hardly disguise themselves as average Janes strolling through supermarkets. Also, the Turing Test wasn’t used to judge emotional response, but more so, “intellectual” intelligence.

However, the Turing and Voight-Kampff tests have their similarities, and nearly 70 years after its invention, the Turing Test is still referenced copiously when it comes to questions of human vs. machine behavior. Many are even trying to come up with more updated, modern alternatives to Turing’s original creation—including The Visual Turing Test, which challenges the computer to use spatial intelligence to identify objects; The Reverse Turing Test, where the computer judges whether it’s interacting with a computer or a human (e.g. CAPTCHA); and the The Lovelace Test 2.0, which asserts that a computer has human intelligence if it can make original art and be creative of its own accord.

All in all, these tests are pretty low risk compared to Voigt-Kampff, where passing or failing meant you could get straight-up lasered to “death.” For now, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s a good thing. But talk to me again in 2040—when I have a flying car and a flock of fake sheep to keep me company.

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