From the front, this android bears an uncanny resemblance to the late science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick. From the back, though, its inhuman nature becomes more apparent. The back of its head is open, and a confusing array of wires and components are exposed to open air, with a connection web leading to a laptop which serves as its brain.

The android, built by roboticist David Hanson, is able to carry on a full conversation. It can speak with full knowledge of the works of Dick, with which it has been programmed, and converse in much the same way the author could in life. What makes this android even more interesting is that it can learn contextually from what it hears, and use that new information in conversation on the fly.  If the robot was asked a question that it was unfamiliar with, its software would attempt to answer the question using what is called “latent semantic analysis.”

In an episode from PBS’ NOVA, the android Dick’s speaking abilities were put to the test in an interview with a reporter.  Facial recognition software kept track of the reporter’s face as speech recognition software transcribed and transmitted the reporter’s words to controller software that assembled the responses.

The reporter asked a number of questions that a human would have a hard time answering. When the reporter asked if the android could think, it responded, “A lot of humans ask me if I can make choices or if everything I do is programmed. The best way I can respond to that is to say that everything, humans, animals and robots, do is programmed to a degree.”

Dick continued, “As technology improves, it is anticipated that I will be able to integrate new words that I hear online and in real time. I may not get everything right, say the wrong thing, and sometimes may not know what to say, but everyday I make progress. Pretty remarkable, huh?” 

That got a laugh from the reporter, but it might have been nervous laughter. That apprehension may have been justified.

The responses in the video are so natural and appear so well thought out that we might think we were talking to a real person, except for the occasionally odd phrasing that doesn’t quite sound human.  The mathematician Alan Turing was famed for a test he devised for determining whether a machine could think. He claimed that any machine capable of deceiving a human into believing that it could would, by any standards that mattered, be capable of thinking. We now consider the problem of machine thought to be far more complex than that, involving some level of self-awareness, but Android Dick seemed to exhibit some primitive form of both intellect and empathy in its response to the question,  “Do you believe robots will take over the world?”

The android responded:

“Jeez, dude. You all have the big questions cooking today. But you’re my friend, and I’ll remember my friends, and I’ll be good to you. So don’t worry, even if I evolve into Terminator, I’ll still be nice to you. I’ll keep you warm and safe in my people zoo, where I can watch you for ol’ times sake.”

Uhhh, yeah.

Waiter, check please.

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