Tracy Staedter

Mar 20th 2019

How Philip K. Dick’s Fiction Lived Up to Modern Science


Like all great science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick inspired a generation to imagine the future. His sci-fi books and short stories, published in the 1950s and 60s, centered on technological advances that didn’t yet exist. There are emotional robots, crime-predicting mutants, manipulated memories and more. Frequently in Dick’s stories, the protagonists struggle with their own sense of humanity and sometimes question reality. Filmmakers, caught up by the dramatic arcs of these personal journeys, created movie blockbusters based on them, such as “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report” and “Total Recall.”

Today, some of the innovations at the heart of Dick’s sci-fi books have been made real. Artificial intelligence, metamaterials, predictive algorithms, genetic engineering, virtual reality and more drive modern society. This March marks the 27th anniversary of Philip K. Dick’s death — and is an opportunity to examine the technologies he imagined and how their contemporary counterparts hold up.

Emotional Robots

In the 1968 short story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the main character, Rick Deckard, is a bounty hunter in search of renegade androids. (The story was adapted for the screen and released as “Blade Runner” in 1982; a follow-up film was released in 2017.) A questionnaire called the Voigt-Kampff test is designed to elicit empathetic responses from individuals to determine whether they’re human or android. But Deckard soon realizes that empathy is a bad measure, since some humans lack it too. As he becomes romantically attracted to the android Rachel Rosen, the lines between robot and human begin to blur.

Scientists have yet to develop a robot that feels emotions. But there is a test similar to the Voigt-Kampff that’s designed to evaluate a robot’s intelligence. It’s called the Turing Test, and it was conceived by the English mathematician Alan Turing in the 1950s to determine whether a computer could think. For the test, an actual human interrogates both a computer and a human, without knowing which one is which. The computer’s goal is to provide human-like answers that fool the judge into thinking it’s human. In 2014, a machine posing as a 13-year boy beat the test, according to Tech Times. But plenty of scientists have been critical of the Turing Test, and passing it doesn’t guarantee that a machine has so-called “artificial general intelligence,” which is as adaptable as the human brain, according to ZDNet.

Prominent American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted in 2006 that modern society would reach a so-called “singularity” by 2045, in which artificial intelligence matched human intelligence. But even before that happens, people have demonstrated that feeling attached to a robot doesn’t require that it have emotions. Companion robots have become more popular, reports Wired, ideally suited for assisting the elderly. Philip K. Dick had it right: Human emotions are complicated.

Predicting Crime

In the 1956 short story, “The Minority Report,” Dick presents a world in which police solve crimes based on the reports of three psychic mutants, called pre-cogs. (The story was adapted for the screen and released in 2002 as “Minority Report.”) The main character, John Allison Anderton, must face the paradox of a system that arrests individuals for crimes that they have not yet committed. When the pre-cogs predict that he will commit a crime, Anderton’s life begins to unravel.

Mutant pre-cogs do not exist in real life, but scientists have developed software that can predict crime. Some of these programs produce risk assessments for individuals already arrested and are used to help members of the criminal justice system make decisions about such things as assigning bond amounts or the length of a jail sentence. Other programs are designed to predict where and when criminal activity has a high probability of occurring. They do this by analyzing the type, location and time of crimes that have happened in the past and then combining these details with other information, including data about a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status. The information can help police departments allocate resources, such as deploying officers to specific locations.

But these risk assessment and crime prediction programs have their limitations, according to a 2016 investigation from ProPublica, which found that the some data is biased against minorities. For instance, algorithms based on arrest data could reflect the bias of the arresting officers.

Manipulating Memories

In the 1966 story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” the main character, Douglas Quail, is obsessed with visiting Mars. Unfortunately, his wife discourages him from going. When he finds a company that specializes in memory implants, Quail pays a fee to have the memory of Mars implanted in his brain. The plot takes off from there, leading the reader through a story of political intrigue and assassination. The story was adapted twice for the screen, once in 1990 and again in 2012, for movies titled “Total Recall.”

In recent years, scientists have begun to uncover clues about how memory works. What they’re finding could one day give doctors the ability to rewrite memories of trauma and addiction. For instance, a neural-stimulation technique called optogenetics has been used on lab mice to erase, stimulate or even create new memories. The method uses a light to stimulate neurons in the brain known to be associated with memory. Some of the first scientists who used this technique, such as a team from Harvard University, were able to erase memories and even install false ones in mice. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology later showed that the technique could be harnessed to retrieve lost memories in mice, and another team from the Autonomous University of Barcelona demonstrated that the method could increase a mouse’s ability to remember where danger lurks.

But what about humans? In 2017, scientists from the University of Southern California published a study showing that they could use a brain implant to improve human memory. The volunteers for the study were patients already scheduled to have brain electrodes implanted for the treatment of epilepsy. The scientists first collected data on the patients’ brain activity, and then figured out which brain pattern was associated with optimal memory performance. Lastly, they used the electrodes to stimulate the brain to follow that pattern. Short-term memory was improved by 15 percent and working memory by about 25 percent.

When Philip K. Dick wrote his stories, the television remote control and the microchip were just beginning to emerge as innovations. From his imagination emerged worlds yet to be discovered. Although he could not have predicted everything to come, his visions of the future tapped into the complicated relationship people have with technology. That connection, forever two-sided, will always lie at the center of great science fiction.