The implications of artificial humans, as seen by Philip Dick
Philip K Dick was one of the most influential science fiction writers of the
twentieth century. His revolutionary, dystopian visions of the future are both alien and
creepily believable, and have shaped the popular image of the grungy, harsh, unloving
future embodied in such films as Star Wars, Blade Runner, and The Matrix. Over the last
few decades, Dick’s stories have been becoming increasingly relevant and popular as
technology has settled itself into our lives and brought with it a slew of moral and social
issues. Over the next decades we will increasingly be confronted with the same decisions
and dilemmas as Dick’s characters. In his novels and short stories Philip Dick creates
boring, unimaginative, obedient, but slightly loving human characters to contrast with
passionate, smart, and desperate artificial or alien intelligences, and then blurs the line
between the two types to demonstrate the frailty of the human spirit and the potential of
machine intelligence. His repetitive use of human-like androids, emotional machines,
mentally unstable humans, and humans and machines in conflict has defined his style by
creating an aura of fear, paranoia, and general unsettlement. The idea that machines could
replace humans in day-to-day life is disturbing yet simultaneously thrilling and
While other authors, notably Isaac Asimov, have written about androids and
artificial humans, none have captured the emotional and moral issues tied to such a
machine. Asimov looks at the issues of human-robot interactions in I, Robot and a
number of other short stories, but he does so as a scientist. His human characters are
sterile and observant, but still much more human than the robots. His robots realize that
they are not human and deal with this reality maturely but with regret. Dick’s robots are
desperate and wild. Like mad men they struggle to survive, to the very end. A
contemporary parallel is cloning. Asimov would have described this technological
miracle as a fantastic accomplishment of the world’s best and brightest whose moral
implications are handled by an international body. Dick would describe the cloning issue
in a way much closer to how it is, with renegade cults claiming the first cloned babies,
politicians waffling on the issue, and overall confusion and chaos ruling. In general Dick
portrays the future in very human, understandable ways.
Dick’s stories are really just vessels for his prophesies, warnings, and visions of
the future. As Patricia Warrick describes it, “Dick’s technique here is first to create a
metaphor – automated factories behave as if they were alive – and then to create a
fictional world where the metaphor is literally true.” (Warrick, Philip K Dick, 190).
Instead of his stories being filled with dilemmas and robots, his imaginary dilemmas and
robots have interesting stories and situations wrapped around them. The joy of reading
Dick is not just the excitement of being transported to another world, but appreciating the
possibility and genius of the worlds themselves. He does not have to develop his
characters (in fact, he rarely bothers) because the situations he places them in are so
relatable and familiar on their own. In this way his novels often resemble extended short
stories: the emphasis is on describing the situation and issues – revelations and
background are more important than the character’s motivations. And the most important
part of any of Dick’s tales is the questions he leaves to the reader- often in the last page
It is impossible to discuss Dick’s writing without mentioning his mental state. As
his writing career progressed, Dick’s instabilities began to have a greater effect. He
publicly acknowledged that LSD and other drugs had a huge affect on his writings. Some
of his crazier and less lucid novels, like Valis, were based on his personal hallucinations
and beliefs about religion and society. It is very easy to see how many of his paranoid
stories are in fact metaphors for his own fears and distrust of society and authority. But as
we have seen in recent years, it often takes somebody whose view of the world seems
profoundly mad for us to observe ourselves sanely. Some of the greatest modern
anthropologists are completely autistic, but instead of warping their perspective, this
gives them an unhindered viewpoint on society.
One of Dick’s trademark story telling devices is misleading the reader about the
humanity of his characters. In stories like “Second Variety”, the entire story arc is based
on the fact that we don’t know which of the major characters is human and which is
machine. Another example is Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep, in which a human
investigator hunts down artificial replicants who are trying to hide and survive illegally
on earth. These stories question human nature and our ability to tolerate and accept
differences. The general conclusion that Dick draws is that humans are bigoted and
unable to respect and coexist with different life forms, even man-made ones. Certainly
the replicants, androids, robots, and artificial life forms display a level of intelligence,
wisdom, and most importantly human weakness to be considered intellectual peers of the
often brutish or mechanically conformist humans. As the characters at the end of
Vulcan’s Hammer put it: “They played us off against one another, like inanimate pieces.
The things became alive and the living organisms were reduced to things. Everything was
turned inside out, like some terrible morbid view of reality.” (Dick, 14)
One of the things Dick is trying to show is that potentially there really isn’t much
of a difference between humans and artificial humans. The inventor of the modern
calculating machine, Alan Turing, invented a test to determine if a true artificial
intelligence has been created: if a human judge can not accurately distinguish between a
real human and an artificial candidate, then that candidate is just as good as human. Most
of Dick’s machines would pass this test with flying colors. Dick even hypothesizes about
potential human/machine tests. In Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep, the main
character is a detective who specializes in hunting down rogue androids on Earth. As
increasingly intelligent androids are developed, the police need increasingly sophisticated
tests to catch rogues and to prove the innocence of real humans. The protagonist is faced
with a new generation of androids who pass all previous tests, and he must use an
advanced “Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test” to determine a being’s humanity. The test
measures the subject’s response to stories and images of humans and animals in distress.
Supposedly a real human would instantly react empathetically to - for example - a turtle
flipped over on it’s back in the sun faster than an android could synthesize an emotional
reaction. This is the classical philosophy about artificial intelligence: what separates
humans from machine thinking is our emotions and empathy.
One way in which Dick’s human characters do show some humanity is in their
occasional self-consciousness. At some point or another, they usually realize how little
separates them from their mechanical competitors, and are shocked or devastated by this
revelation. This is where Dick vicariously comes through in his novels to tell us that we
really are very similar to our creations.
Perhaps reflecting his own distrust of his human brain, Dick’s human characters
are often irrational and paranoid. They are fearful and hostile towards life forms not like
them, either artificial or organic. Androids and robots in general are hated and mistreated
by humanity, which feels threatened by the technologically advanced machines. This is
the dynamic that most science fiction storytellers describe: humanity rebelling against its
own creations, persecuting and destroying anything that threatens its evolutionary
superiority. Movie makers like Spielberg (AI) and the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix
Trilogy, The Animatrix) tell stories of epic human/android conflicts, where humans
become paranoid and suspicious of artificial life and try to destroy it. In AI the robots
accept this fate passively with an almost zen calmness, but in the Matrix and many other
sci-fi battles of man versus machine, the robots stand up and fight back.
In many stories, like “Second Variety”, the androids are just agents and pawns
used in a larger scale conflict between two militant groups. The androids are used by one
side to impersonate members of the other side for the purpose of infiltration and betrayal.
Dick was probably making a social commentary about mindless military organizations
meddling in forbidden technology to the detriment of all of humanity: after all, he lived
through the Cold War and nuclear arms race, and had a very anti-government stance.
Dick is warning us, as he often does, that short sighted development of technology can be
potentially catastrophic, even to the extreme of the destruction of the human race. Almost
every science fiction story ends up having some sort of all-powerful weapon or
instrument of mass power that can be used for evil. Increasingly, the lessons of these
weapons are becoming relevant. In today’s world in which weapons of mass destruction
are wielded by superpowers to the terror of the entire world - weapons so powerful that
they dictate pretty much all of the world’s foreign policy - we could learn something
from these stories of Death Stars and nuclear cyborgs. Ronald Regan’s satellite anti-
ballistic missile program was called Star Wars: could an android army be that far off?
More recently, George Lucas has included robotic and clone armies in his films. As the
military develops and deploys more and more robotic and automated weaponry, and the
scientific community declares that human cloning is not only possible but has probably
already happened, the issues raised in science fiction become more and more
contemporary and urgent.
On the other hand, the human race has never let fear of technology stop it, for
better or worse. During the Manhattan Project, there was concern that a nuclear explosion
could ignite the entire atmosphere: the project, and the explosions, went on. Just a few
years ago there was concern that a particle accelerator experiment could yield a new
elementary particle that could destroy the entire earth and the solar system. The
experiment went on. Right now there is concern that nanotechnology could result in self-
replicating goo that devours all the matter on earth, but we are heedlessly developing that
technology. Scientists and programmers are working right now on next generation
computer systems in the military and civilian sectors which will link together networks to
yield unprecedented processing power. Perhaps people should be worrying more about
the possibility of an artificial intelligence developing on these networks. With our track
record of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, anthrax, prevalent hacking on the internet, and
massive power grid failures, it could be only a matter of time before Dick’s nightmares
are realized and we are over run by androids.
Another interesting situation that Dick raises is that sometimes his artificial
machines don’t even know that they are artificial, or similarly, the human characters can’t
quite be sure of their own humanity. This is best demonstrated in Do Androids Dream,
when the human protagonist questions his humanity. This questioning of our environment
and minds falls in a large, ages old category of philosophical thought. Humans have
always pondered if we might all just be the figment of some other being’s imagination, or
perhaps that our entire world is just part of some higher being’s dream (or nightmare).
The Matrix brought the technical possibility of this kind of existence to the mainstream.
The concept that we are not actually who or what we think we are, living in the
environment we think we do, is almost always presented as a horrible scenario, even
though it could be a blessing. In We Can Build You, the two main characters discuss the
idea of Tuck Everlasting-like immortality as being a mixed blessing:
“Do you think that someday somebody will make a simulacrum of you and
me? And we’ll have to come back to life?”
“What a morbid thought.”
“There we’ll be, dead and oblivious to everything… and then we’ll feel
something stirring. Maybe see a snatch of light. And then it’ll all come
flooding in on us, reality once more. We’ll be helpless to stop the process,
we’ll have to come back. Resurrected!” She shuddered.
(Dick, We Can Build You, 66)
The possible benefits of living in a faux world - or as a faux person – are commonly
disregarded. There is something sacred about authenticity and nature that reassures us: no
mater what happens, and no mater how inhuman we may act, ultimately we are only
human beings – a status which both excuses us our errors (“To err is humane”) and gives
us an intuitive and emotional superiority over artificial replacements.
Dick describes this superiority of the natural metaphorically in Do Androids
Dream of Electronic Sheep. In this world, some of the greatest status symbols are
legitimate animals. In a world devastated by war, with the majority of species extinct, the
remaining animals are rare and valuable. They are collected and traded, with market
values tracked. One of Rick’s (the protagonist) biggest shames is that his pet sheep is
actually an artificial. He keeps this fact secret and it is admired by his neighbors, but he
longs for a real pet. At the end of the book he believes that he has found a toad- an
impossibly valuable find, as that species has gone extinct. His find gives him newfound
hope and optimism, but ultimately he discovers that it is only an artificial. The artificial
animals are identical in almost every way to real animals. By design they require the
same care, feeding, and cleaning as a regular animal, and they are expensive, just not to
the degree of a real animal. In the end, soon after terminating his last replicant, Rick
decides to keep his artificial toad. Rick feels a moral superiority to the androids in
keeping the toad: “And no android, he thought, will cut the legs from this. As they did
from the [idiot's] spider.” (Dick, 112). Dick is telling us that what separates us from
artificial intelligence is our empathy and love for life. To stay human we must love and
accept even artificial life, or we are nothing more than machines ourselves.
As artificial intelligence comes closer to human intelligence, the gap can be
further shortened by our definition of human intelligence. Certain mentally challenged
minds are much closer to contemporary artificial intelligence than the general population.
In the opposite direction, many of the human intelligence ideals, such as great artists,
writers, or thinkers, are beyond the general population. Ironically, while artists and
musicians posses talents beyond those of most humans, their talents are easily replicated
by artificial intelligences. Composition software decades old can emulate great human
composers or produce their own works, and other robots and intelligences have been
developed to paint. The works of these machine thinkers certainly compares with those of
young children or retarded adults. So if the definition of human value is our minds, and
artificial intelligence can approach the capabilities of some human minds, does that not
make them as good as human? Must they exceed the capabilities of the entire human race
to be recognized as equal? And if we do not accept artificial intelligence as equal, should
we accept humans who resemble artificial intelligence? Dick ponders this very question
in Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep:
The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of
human specials in terms of intelligence. In other words, androids
equipped with the new Nexus-6 brain unit had from a sort of rough,
pragmatic, no-nonsense standpoint evolved beyond a major — but
inferior — segment of mankind. For better or worse. The servant had in
some cases become more adroit than its master.
(Dick, Androids, 16)
The “specials” referenced are a large group of humans living on earth who are either
mentally or physically “inferior”, due to large scale radiation and mutations. The
government tests and classifies citizens as “specials” through intelligence tests. Dick
presents other human minds as similar to machines: “The schizoid, designed by Dick as
an android-like personality unable to respond with feelings” (Warrick, Philip K Dick,
David Brin captured the practical question of intelligences spawning other
intelligences in his book Sundiver. In that story, every intelligent species in the universe
has it’s place in a cascading hierarchy, where each species has a master species which
parented it and educated it into full intelligence. Dick and other authors often do not
approach this question: if a form of intelligence owes it’s entire existence to another form
of intelligence, how does that affect their relationship? Is it understandable that the
developed race be subservient and grateful to their creators? Is it ok for the creator to take
advantage of and use the developed race for it’s own purposes? Is the developed race
necessarily more or less advanced? Could it indeed be an evolution and improvement
upon the older race? How far does equality stretch? In The Matrix, there is a very
memorable scene in which a software “agent” tells a human captive that the artificial
intelligence that has come to rule the planet is evolutionarily superior. He describes
humans as a “cancer” on the earth, and the machines as the “cure.” Whether or not
humans will one day become extinct and obsolete to their own creations, there is one
advantage and strength that we will always have over our artificial creations: we came
first, and we had the power, intelligence, and skill to create another form of intelligence.
And can an artificial intelligence be described as superior to the human mind if it was the
human mind that conceived and created it?
Philip Dick’s writings have inspired decades of writers, stories, discussion, and
thought. The issues of artificial life and intelligence are ones which will become more
and more relevant in coming years, and he has already done a good job charting the
philosophical and moral territory, as well as the emotional one. His use of technology in
his stories made for unique plot twists and situations at the time, but now we are facing
those same situations in real life. We can learn a lot from his stories and characters,
because Dick accurately portrayed the reactions and motivations of his characters
environments and times that most people have trouble understanding, let alone conceive
of living in.
(Philip Dick and Artificial Intelligence)
Dick, Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?.
New York: Ballantine Books. 1968.
Dick, Philip. Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip
K. Dick. Ed. Patricia Warrick, Martin Greenburg, Philip Dick, Martin Harry Greenberg.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Dick, Philip. Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick.
New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.
Dick, Philip. We Can Build You.
New York: Vintage Books, 1994
Dick, Philip. Valis.
New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Abrash, Merritt. “’Man Everywhere in Chains’: Dick, Rousseau, and The Ultimate
Truth”, Philip K. Dick: Contemporary Critical Interpretations. Ed. Samuel Umland.
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995
Mackey, Douglas A.. Philip K. Dick.
Boston: Twayne, 1988
On Philip K. Dick: 40 Articles from Science-Fiction Studies. Ed. R.D. Mullen.
Terre Haute, IN.: SF-TH Inc., 1992
Philip K. Dick. Ed. Martin Harry Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander.
New York: Taplinger Pub. Co., 1983
Rebecca Umland. “Unrequited Love in We Can Build You”, Philip K. Dick:
Contemporary Critical Interpretations. Ed. Samuel Umland.
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995
Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Novels of Philip K. Dick.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1984