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[Audio] If 'Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' Doesn't That Make Them Human?

Courtesy of Swank Motion Pictures, Warner Brothers

Andrew Black of Murray State's Cinema International ponders artificial intelligence and what it means to be human ahead of tonight's showing of Blade Runner The Final Cut at Murray State's Curris Center Theatre.

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Well, if they do, doesn’t that make them essentially human? Tales of computers coming to life come out all the time, and while we’ve yet to enter the Matrix, we still think about what would happen if our technology decided to take on a mind of its own. Maybe we’re not so worried that our toaster or our alarm clock is going to take over the world, but we continue to be gripped by concepts of “artificial intelligence.” 

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was the creepy, never blinking light that was Hal 9000, later it was Terminators made out of liquid metal, that represented our fear that technology might develop a soul, an imagination, a consciousness. And if the android develops a consciousness, how do we know we’re not an android? How do we know that our illusions aren’t just programmed in the same way we tell a microwave what to cook and how long, or like the way we tell Mario to get a coin? How do we know whether the sheep we’re dreaming of are real or electric? As Keanu Reeves says, “Woah.”

No writer captured this tension better than Philip K. Dick, for whom many of his books basically seemed to tell the same story over and over again: a man seems to lose his identity. That premise was incredibly elastic for Dick, who used it to ask bigger questions about where our identities originated, or where they ended, or if you could lose one, or if you make a machine that had one – if it was ever there to begin with. Your dreams, your memories, your desires, your fantasies? “We can sell it to you wholesale,” Dick says in the title of one of his stories, which became the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster Total Recall – about a guy who has a dream vacation implanted into his memories, and can’t tell the dream from the reality (or was it reality?) that he formerly inhabited.

In Minority Report, a cop who uses technology that allows him to see the future and stop crimes finds out that he’s going to commit a crime. In A Scanner Darkly, an undercover cop uses a special suit to scramble his appearance and protect his identity, and soon wonders if everyone he meets is wearing a suit.

What made Dick’s stories so compelling is that he framed this disorientation in terms of a relationship with technology itself. Dick had hallucinations that strongly influenced his writing, and so his audience often views his writings as prophetic, or at least very attuned to the problems of modernity. He wrote, “I ask, in my writing, What is real?

Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.” Universes of the mind.

The French philosopher and mathemetician Rene Descartes asked as a philosophical question, how do I know that my reality is not produced by an evil demon that lives inside of me? How would I be able to prove that all reality is not produced this demon? His solution - I think, Therefore I am – is a solution to the problem of whether I exist, but not to the problem of what I am. “The problem of what I am” produced some pretty epically weird stories from Philip K. Dick.

This weekend, for Cinema International, we’re showing the best movie ever made from P.K. Dick’s work – Blade Runner, adapted from the book titled with the question that I opened with: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. As a man finds himself falling in love with an android, he begins to wonder what it means to be human, or at least as much as he can while solving a murder and putting down renegade “replicants” who endanger the lives of humans.

In 1982, the movie was a box-office flop – a low point for Harrison Ford between Han Solo and Indiana Jones – yet, like Philip K. Dick himself, the movie has developed a cult around the “director’s cut” that came out ten years later, fulfilling the vision of director Ridley Scott in a way that the original version audiences saw did not; it’s often seen as one of the best movies of the eighties. It blends that wonderful new wave sensibility of the early 1980s with the conventions of film noir.

Join us tonight at 7 PM at the Curris Center Theater: however, don’t complain to us if the person sitting next to you is an android; you might just be one yourself.

See the event page on Facebook

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
Asia Burnett is WKMS Station Manager.
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