Do androids dream of freedom?

An android created in memory of the author of the book that inspired the cult film Blade Runner has gone missing.

Phil (L) can read people's body language and expressions

The state-of-the-art robot named after Philip Dick, the science fiction writer who died more than 20 years ago, has not been seen since early January when it was being transported to California on a commercial airliner.

The android, known simply as ”Phil”, was created by robotics expert David Hanson and his Dallas-based Hanson Robotics organisation.

Hanson built Phil as a memorial to Dick along with the author’s friend Paul Williams and experts from the universities of Texas and Memphis.

The robot first made a public splash at a technology festival in Chicago in June.

Dreaming of sheep

Steve Prilliman of Hanson robotics said: “We’re very worried because it’s been a few weeks now. We’re pressing hard to find Phil.”

Dick’s 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the 1982 classic Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford. The author died in the same year.

His short stories served as inspiration for other films including Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Minority Report, with Tom Cruise.

In Blade Runner, set in Los Angeles in 2019, Harrison Ford plays a Blade Runner or policeman whose job is to track down and terminate escaped human clones known as “replicants.”

“All those moments … will be lost … in time … like … tears in rain”

Replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner

There is a certain irony to Phil’s disappearance – a missing replica of the very author who championed “replicant” freedom.

It is one that is not lost on Phil’s creators. But they still want him back.

“We really need to find him soon because the Smithsonian wants to put him in a travelling collection in the fall,” Prilliman said, referring to Washington‘s Smithsonian Institute, an organisation of museums and art galleries.

Along with an eerie likeness to the author, the robot features award-winning artificial intelligence that mimics the writer’s mannerisms and lifelike skin material to affect realistic expressions.

Human replicant

Top-of-the-line voice software loaded with data from Dick’s vast body of writing allows the robot to carry on natural-sounding conversations.

Biometric-identification software and advanced machine vision allows Phil to recognise people, read their expressions and body language and talk to them sounding a lot like a normal, albeit slightly senile, author who likes to quote his own books when he gets confused.

Prilliman and others close to Phil were reluctant to give too many details about his disappearance, including the name of the airline that was transporting the robot when he went missing.

Hanson officials said news of Phil’s disappearance could hamper the ongoing investigation and search for the robot.

The company officials said they feared ransom demands might be made, or Phil could turn up listed for sale on an internet auction house such as eBay.

A spokeswoman, Elaine Hanson, said the company was considering building a new android if the original Phil did not turn up.

Source: AFP

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