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Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2006 22:18:47 -0400
From: Ruben Safir
Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Almost Real
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A Strange Loss of Face, More Than Embarrassing By SHARON WAXMAN
LOS ANGELES, June 23 â€” Philip K. Dick has gone missing, and now
Hollywood finds itself an android short.
An actual android.
This famed science fiction writer, whose work was the source for many
a Hollywood blockbuster, from "Blade Runner" to "Minority Report," has
been dead since 1982. Last year an admiring doctoral student and evident
computer whiz, David Hanson, built a life-size facsimile of Mr. Dick,
using the latest artificial intelligence technology, robotics and a
skinlike substance he calls "frubber."
The android, which looked just like the author and was able to conduct
rudimentary conversations about Mr. Dick's work and ideas, was at
the cutting edge of robotic technology, able to make eye contact and
believable facial expressions.
The robot made several public appearances last year, including at the
Comic Con in San Diego, where he (it?) was on a panel for the coming
movie, "A Scanner Darkly," which is based on a Dick novel.
Indeed, Warner Independent Pictures, which on July 7 is releasing the
film, an experimental, animated thriller directed by Richard Linklater,
had intended to send the robot on a promotional tour to promote the film.
That is, until its head went missing.
"We thought we might have him do a junket, we would have pitched him to
Letterman," said Laura Kim, a senior executive at Warner Independent, the
art-house arm of Warner Brothers. "I don't know if they would have had him
on, but it would have been fun and interesting and perfect for the film."
What happened to the android is a mystery, one that is more than mildly
intriguing to fans who knew Mr. Dick as a futurist who advocated freedom
and compassion for robots in an evolving world, and that has been debated
in the technology press.
Less intrigued, rather more like depressed, is Mr. Hanson, the robot
maker who left the head on an America West flight from Dallas to Las
Vegas in December. En route to San Francisco, Mr. Hanson, 36, had to
change planes in Las Vegas, something he hadn't expected.
He had been traveling for weeks, pulling all-nighters in a race between
his work as a roboticist (he also made a much-discussed robotic head of
Einstein); as the founder of a fledgling company, Hanson Robotics; and
his doctoral work. But unlike his creation, Mr. Hanson is, apparently,
"They woke me up, I got my laptop from under my seat, and being dazed,
I just forgot that I had the robot in there," said Mr. Hanson, referring
to the head in a black, American Tourister roller bag, left in the
After landing in San Francisco, he notified the airline, whose officials
apparently found the head in Las Vegas, packed it in a box and sent it
on the next flight to San Francisco. Mysteriously, it never arrived.
"It's hard to know where they went wrong," said Mr. Hanson. "Did it go on
to another city? Did it get mistagged? Did it end up in a warehouse? What
happened?" He still doesn't know, though he is in touch with America
West every few weeks in a vain quest for answers.
The rest of the android's body was traveling separately, and arrived at
San Francisco without incident.
The robot was only coincidentally tied to the film, an unusual project
that looks much like a graphic novel come to life: it uses live-action
photography overlaid with advanced animation.
The movie, a cautionary tale about drug use, stars an animated Keanu
Reeves as an undercover police officer who is ordered to start spying
on his friends, played by Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. When
he is directed to begin surveillance on himself, he finds himself in a
paranoid web, where people's true loyalties become impossible to decode.
Over time, Mr. Dick â€” who himself struggled with drug abuse â€” has
become a cultural hero in science fiction circles, known for futuristic
novels and stories that pose many of the moral and philosophical dilemmas
that come with advancing technology.
And Hollywood has had its own love affair with the writer, successfully
basing huge franchise movies on his work, including "Blade Runner,"
with Harrison Ford, and "Total Recall" with Arnold Schwarzenegger,
as well as smaller films like "Impostor" and "Paycheck."
For Mr. Hanson the missing android is an open sore, straining his
relations with Mr. Dick's foundation and the author's two surviving
daughters, who provided access to much of Mr. Dick's nonpublished
materials, which were downloaded into the android's brain. Sorry,
It took Mr. Hanson and a team of other experts six months to build the
robot, and required $25,000 from student loans and investors. He also
regards it as an artist might a masterpiece, one of a kind and invaluable
in its own right.
The film's promotion might have been an opportunity to educate a wider
public about Mr. Hanson's â€” and Mr. Dick's â€” preoccupations regarding
the limits of technology, and the dangers. The robot, Mr. Hanson said,
referring to the author by his initials, "realizes science fiction,
it transitions it from fiction to reality, to some extent."
"It implies that transition," he continued. "And it's supposed to provoke
one to consider issues that P.K.D. was considering."
However satisfying to those with a sense of irony, Mr. Hanson is not
comforted by the idea of his homage to Mr. Dick on a jaunt somewhere or,
more likely, stuck in storage.
"It's almost like it has some free spirit to it," he said. "A lot of
people have said that it's almost like a P.K.D. narrative, like one of
those absurd twists that would occur in a P.K.D. novel. But emotionally
it doesn't feel that way to me."
In Hollywood, though, executives have found a way to turn the loss to
their advantage. Noting the oddity of the story, Ms. Kim said of the
android: "He was perfect for the film. Now he's disappeared â€” and
that's perfect for the film too."
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