Imagine talking to a life-size robot version of your favourite dead author. Crafted by a skilled sculptor and controlled by artificial intelligence, the android could—in the author’s voice and with human gestures and facial movements—answer questions about his life, his books and any topic you asked him. Now imagine the author was Philip K Dick, the paranoid sci-fi visionary whose most famous work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, featured conscious androids almost indistinguishable from their human makers. The stranger-than-fiction Philip K Dick android was built by a team of young scientists at Memphis University’s Institute of Intelligent Systems, led by roboticist David Hanson and programmer Andrew Olney. In 2005 it briefly captured the world’s attention, appearing at technology conventions around the US, before going missing on a flight between Dallas and Las Vegas, never to be seen again. Dufty’s insider’s account blends the android’s story with that of artificial intelligence, robotics and Dick himself in a combination that will be fascinating to sci-fi buffs, popular science readers and nerds of all stripes (like me). It’s the best kind of popular science—a book that doesn’t require any previous knowledge, but leaves you hungry to know more, and wondering at the possibilities that may lie ahead.
Lachlan Jobbins is an editor, reviewer and ex-bookseller. This review first appeared in the June issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.