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Now Seriously Android: Do You Dream Of Electric Sheep?

By Sam Bakken in News on Jun 24, 2005 9:16PM

Human girl. Robot man.
There really ain't much out there quite as eerie as an artificially intelligent Philip K. Dick robot looking you in the eye. And because it (referred to henceforth as "it" or "PKDR" for we shan't speak it's evil name in full) spooked us so, we're sure it's evil and needs to be destroyed.

As you may have read, we took advantage of a preview of WIRED NextFest 2005 at Navy Pier this morning. While it seems that a more appropriate title would be "NowFest" (don't get us wrong, there are plenty of interesting exhibits, it just wasn't the mind-blowing glimpse into the future we'd thought it'd be), one particular exhibit had quite an effect on us. Together Hanson Robotics, the University of Memphis FedEx Institute of Technology and the Automation and Robotics Research Institute of University of Texas at Arlington have created a "robotic likeness" of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, and the robot makes its debut at NextFest. Those familiar with Dick's work will appreciate the appropriateness of PKD as the subject of the exhibit as most of his novels explore the effects of technology on human identity.

The exhibit is a small rectangle room evidently designed to look like one of the late writer's apartments. Against the back wall stands a couch on which the robot sits. The body is basically a sculpture and doesn't move, but the head and face are completely animated with 38 different motors. As we stepped into the exhibit with a group of other people, PKDR's head looked back and forth (wide-eyed and, by its facial twitching, seemingly nervous), apparently scanning the room for faces. One fellow observer mentioned to his friend, "It'll look you in the eye! Look it in the eye!" To which his friend replied, "I don't want to look it in the eye." We agreed.

For a bit, PKDR looked deep into our eyes. Our fear must have shown through as PKDR seemed to furrow its brow, but it wouldn't look away—so we quickly averted our gaze. To start, the demonstrator, Andrew (one person misheard his name as "Android"), asked PKDR to introduce itself and it did. At one point it looked at a young woman seated in front of us and winked at her. The director of the FedEx Institute of Technology assured us PKDR didn't wink because he recognized the face as specifically female; the wink is just one of its pre-programmed reactions to anything it recognizes as a face. Later when one man asked PKDR if it'd been flirting with the girl, PKDR said it didn't know because it was just an android. The PKDR team developed speech-recognition software that allows the robot to answer questions. When asked, PKDR said its favorite movie is "Bicentennial Man".

This thing actually seemed to have a personality. The FedEx Institute "mathematically derived the robot's artificial intelligence personality from the life and works of Dick in a manner similar to what Dick described in his book We can build you [sic]." Spooky as the thing is, this technology is really exciting. Just think! "Freud" could teach you, or give you, psychoanalysis. "Sartre" or his beau "Simone de Beauvoir" could teach you about existentialism. "Bach" could give you piano lessons. You could study your genealogy by talking to an animatronic version of a long-dead ancestor.

We can't say that the PKDR exhibit alone is worth the admission price, but if you plan on going to NextFest, do be sure to see it. If you don't plan on going, and enjoy getting spooked, in April a post on boingboing links to video of another similar android head. The post also mentions "the uncanny valley" concept that explains why these androids are so creepy.