I posted this review of “How To Build An Android: The True Story of Philip K Dick’s Robotic Resurrection” by David Dufty on the SF Site in 2013 – I originally reblogged this on the fairly quiet A Medical Education, but here it is on my more popular blog….:


How to Build an Android:
The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection
David F. Dufty
Henry Holt and Company, 273 pages

Just over seven years ago, the head of Philip K Dick went missing from an America West Airlines flight between Dallas and Las Vegas. A tired roboticist, transferring the talking robotic replication of Dick’s head from one tech presentation to another, left it in an overhead baggage locker. An incident which has already inspired a radio play (Gregory Whitehead’sBring Me The Head of Philip K Dick) and received substantial media coverage at the time, it initially seemed to me somewhat too slight to merit book-length treatment. Perhaps a long piece in Wired would do it justice. And indeed, surveying what other reviewers have made of the book (David F. Dufty has handily compiled prior reviews, including poor ones, on his website), I find that some have concluded with my initial impression. For instance, New Scientist‘s Sally Adee found “50 pages of detailed historical introductions to every last person involved in the android project… Dufty recounts conversations in exhausting detail, and finds nothing too small or insignificant to share with the reader: we learn where the Starbucks is at several convention centres, we learn of one room that “the frame was made out of timber.” We learn that Google created a famous search engine.”

I however found Adee’s criticism unfair, and somewhat beside the point. Dufty, a postdoc in the University of Memphis at the same time as many of the events described and therefore working with many of the personalities involved, has crafted a readable narrative which ranges from the nature of academic politics (and the grant applications that take up most of any senior researchers time) to the distinctions between Alan Turing’s and Philip K Dick’s visions of what distinguishes — or could distinguish — computers from humans. In the end, the book dealt with weighty themes, some of the weightiest themes we can think of. As Henry Markham of the Blue Brain project so eloquently describes in his TED talk on the subject, computational simulation of the human brain is one of the grandest challenges we can conceive (and possibly an unattainable one, although that’s another debate) Dufty may have a somewhat flat, deadpan style, but it reminded me of the dictum (possibly one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s) that extraordinary narratives should have an unadorned, simple style.

If the book has a protagonist, it is the man who left the head in the overhead luggage compartment on that fateful flight, David Hanson, a trained sculptor turned roboticist who passionately argued — contra to the prevailing wisdom in the robotics community that aesthetics don’t matter — that beautiful and lifelike humanoid robots were crucial in the development of robots that would truly revolutionise our lives. Hanson emphatically rejected the notion of the “uncanny valley,” the supposed phenomenon whereby, as robotic models and digital representations of humans come closer and closer to being lifelike (while missing the mark slightly), we are more and more repulsed. Intuitively the uncanny valley makes sense to many, yet as Hanson has pointed out there is a lack of empirical evidence to support its existence.

Artificial intelligence has evolved to become focused on specific tasks, often those of intellectual prowess (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) rather than the overall simulation of human mental functioning in all its manifestations. This has lead to great, headline-catching successes (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) but has arguably lead away from a visionary, transformational view of the possibilities of AI. Hanson advocates approach to robotics grounded more in a gestalt view of humanity and human-ness than the mere performance of tasks in isolation, and one which emphasises the aesthetic nature of the whole android concept. For Hanson, leaps of scientific progress are as much artistic and aesthetic as anything else. Dufty describes the combination of sculpting craft and high tech that goes into the creation of a Hanson style robot very well.

Philip K Dick was an ideal candidate for potential immortalisation as a robot head in many ways. Obviously, his fiction had dealt explicitly with themes of humanity and humanoid robots, and the difficulty distinguishing between them. Empathy, rather than Turing’s imitable intellectual functioning, was the key. Dick has become more than a cult figure and is now widely regarded as a key American author of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Any Dick related project will garner attention, and the project coincided with the production of the Richard Linklater film A Scanner Darkly, and indeed was identified as a publicity aid for the film. Also, Dick’s reputation as a sort of neo-gnostic eccentric meant that elliptical or cryptic responses which might otherwise be seen as failures of artificial intelligence would be seen as just typical Philip K Dick.

Another characteristic of Dick made him an ideal subject for such a project. Although he was dead and therefore his head couldn’t be directly modelled from life, there was a vast archive of conversations he had had with all comers in his California bungalow in the 70s, when his house had been a sort of perpetual symposium of dropouts and outcasts with whom he would hold court. These conversations covered a vast range of topics, esoteric and everyday, which allowed the team to create a bank of possible responses to a great deal of questions. They also programmed some standard responses to questions such as “what is your name?” They never programmed Dick with a response to “do androids dream of electric sheep?”

The head was a hit at the various conferences and exhibitions it was displayed at, to the extent that each member of the public who patiently queued up to meet it could only have a minute or two of interaction. Dick’s daughters were consulted about the project, and after being convinced of the good intentions of those involved agree, but had an understandable ambivalence about it. The head did tend to get caught in infinite verbal loops, which the roboticists tried to manage by creating a “kill switch” to terminate logorrheic conversations. In its exhibited life the head was, to a certain degree, something of a Mechanical Turk, with a human behind the scenes desperately trying to maintain the illusion of spontaneous conversation.

I was reading the English psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissaryaround the same time as Dufty’s book. McGilchrist’s book is a massive, sweeping, visionary book which argues that the division between the two hemispheres of the brain — the one which is grossly simplified into the dichotomy of logical left brain and creative right brain — has been not only a determinant of human history and culture but THE great determinant. McGilchrist has marshalled an enormously impressive range of philosophical, empirical, artistic and other forms of evidence for his argument, and while it is not utterly persuasive in all respects and hemispherical specialisation is itself far from a binary, dichotomous phenomenon, it is a book worth arguing with. In any case, McGilchrist again and again assails what he terms the left-brain tendency towards decontextualized analysis and away from an appreciation of holistic and of nuance. Artificial Intelligence’s turn to a task-focused approach is, in McGilchrist’s terms, a classic case of the triumph of the left brain.

Dufty’s book is deceptive. Initially it seems a rather bald account of the story of Dick’s head, but it builds into a thought-provoking book. Dufty marries the exciting, speculative world of contemporary AI and robotics with the prosaic reality of grant applications and presentations at noisy, busy, conferences. There is an amusing thread of Talking Heads references throughout — indeed David Byrne is a not insignificant player in the story . One of these references is slightly off the mark though — while Talking Heads did do a version of “Take Me To The River,” it is originally an Al Green song. Why does this come up? You’ll have to read the book to see.




Tim Miller on the Bush funeral and “the sad truth of public theatre”

At his blog Truth and Silence, Tim Miller has a post on the funeral of George H W Bush and what it reveals about the media and our culture..

We have a funny view of politicians. Someone once said that politics is the only profession in which every says they would prefer an amateur to a professional (it was phrased a lot more fluently than that)

As mentioned before I have been reading quite a bit of Edwin Friedman lately. It has provoked a lot of thought for me about leadership, responsibility, and the recurrent patterns of our relationships. It struck me how much is projected onto leaders. Personally, I have always felt I would vote for someone who announced “Public administration is complex and challenging. I don’t have all the answers. Also, there are lots of things I and any government cannot possibly control. I have principles, relevant experience, and will respectfully listen to expertise and respectfully listen to concerns and  complaints – but won’t promise blind obedience to experts or that I can solve every problem.”

Would such a candidate get any, or many votes? Would a political party with a platform of “we don’t know the exact answers, but we will do our best” get anywhere? It seems too trite to load onto politicians the freight of taking the brunt of the decline in influence of organised religion – although I have a feeling they may identify with this post on clergy burnout, for similar reasons.  

Leaders tend to be the landing place of many projections. And when disappointed, the electorate are unforgiving. To give one of many examples, it is reasonably safe to say that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are the most despised politicians of the recent past in Britain and Ireland respectively – yet both were the most successful electoral performers of the last twenty years.  Of course, both are despised for very specific things, but some of the intensity is surely due to the rage of our own self-projections proving fallible.

Behind the scenes it does seem most politicians are hard-working strivers trying to do their best and navigate the various competing interests (which, of course, includes you and me and our own interests)

Anyhow, Tim Miller captures this better than I am. Here are some bits I especially liked:

Many of these moments—at least the ones that are now fodder for Twitter and cable news (I put Twitter first on purpose)—are clearly staged to some extent. But it’s also true that many of these kinds of meetings and friendships are genuine. Yet the cynicism of the 2016 election, and the mistrust of public figures and public spectacle that has been going on for decades, begs the question of what is going on here. How can Al Gore be talking to such an evil man as Dick Cheney, and how can Dick Cheney be talking to such liberal scum as Al Gore? Isn’t this the very kind of hypocrisy that normal people despise in politicians? And for those who aren’t talking and are just in the same room together, how can Donald Trump sit so close to Hillary Clinton without doing all he can to finally lock her up? Are these forms of public spectacle just the highest examples of the contradiction and insincerity that lies at the heart of political and social life, or are they examples of what civilization actually is, that people who disagree usually come together, and in some cases are friends?

No one in my lifetime anyway has had the ability to change how politicians and public figures are presented; at best, they are only the manipulators of the media landscape they live in. If anything, Donald Trump merely picked up what was already on the ground and used it better than anyone ever has, and it’s doubtful he would have been elected if the ways we communicate and receive the news wasn’t already so degraded.

That very degradation cannot deal with the complexity and the actual truth that these powerful people embody: that those with vastly different visions for how the world should work just might get along, and that outside of the kinds of rallies and invective the media encourages and the public seems to want, the truth is actually much quieter. So the real sadness of watching George H. W. Bush’s funeral is this: that while the politicians, supposedly the most insincere people in the world, realize the complexity of their positions, the public at large does not.


…Even more powerless than the politicians to change how we interact with others and the world, we regular citizens blindly accept the public theater as actual reality and have ended up despising one another, and quite literally rupturing any sense of wholeness, or a shared soul. Gore and Cheney can talk peacefully, while voters who admire one or the other are proud to hate each other. For my part, I’ve stopped believing that the right or the left can possibly be as idiotic, ignorant, childish, or brutal as the anecdotes that make it onto Twitter or Reddit or cable news claim to show. That is not who we actually are, and while I never thought I’d say such a thing, it’s taken politicians to show me this.







“I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him.”

I came across this quote by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys via The Frailest Thing blog – the concept of the “ever denser web of deadlines required by the various social spheres” reminded me of “the unbridled onward rush into the abyss” of this post:

I could spend a lot of time posting quotes and reflections on the time pressure of modernity – so much so all my time could be eaten away….:

A further weighty obstacle to the realization of any ethical life project lies in the way individuals are increasingly caught in an ever denser web of deadlines required by the various social spheres (‘subsystems’) in which they participate: work, family, (school and sports activities of children), church, credit systems (i.e., loan payment due dates), energy systems (utility bills), communications systems (Internet and cell phone bills), etc. The requirement of synchronizing and managing this complicated mesh of imperatives places one under the imperious control of a systematically induced ‘urgency of the fixed-term’ (Luhmann). In practice, the surprising—and ethically disastrous—result is that individuals’ reflective value and preference orderings are not (and tendentially cannot) be reflected in their actions. As Luhmann explains, ‘the division of time and value judgments can no longer be separated. The priority of deadlines flips over into a primacy of deadlines, into an evaluative choiceworthiness that is not in line with the rest of the values that one otherwise professes …. Tasks that are always at a disadvantage must in the end be devalued and ranked as less important in order to reconcile fate and meaning. Thus a restructuring of the order of values can result simply from time problems.’

People compelled to continually defer the activities they value most in order to meet an endless and multiplying stream of pressing deadlines inevitably become haunted by the feeling expressed in the trenchant bon mot of Ödön von Horváth cited by Rosa: ‘I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him.’

Meet the dung cannon, the cabbage parachute, the crystal brain , the mousepee pinkgill, the midnight disco, and the scurfy twiglet

All the above are fungi, as I have discovered from reading John Wright’s  “The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names”   When I was a medical student I did sometimes wonder if the many many more obscure bits and pieces of human anatomy could be given more homely names than flexor pollicis this and gastrocnemius that. I don’t think so anymore, and this passage from Wright helps illustrate why:


I took the trouble to familiarise myself with Latin names, so, perhaps rather churlishly, I just tell people to buckle down and learn them too. However, I have been slightly thwarted in my evangelism. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 introduced the requirement that all UK species in need of protection have a common English name.*While nearly all British plants and large animals were possessed of one, most fungi were not, so the British Mycological Society set about creating ‘common’ names for all but the most obscure.2 Some of them put my own inventions to shame. We now have the dung cannon (Pilobolus crystallinus), the cabbage parachute (Micromphale brassicolens), the crystal brain (Exidia nucleata), the mousepee pinkgill (Entoloma incanum) and, my personal favourite, the midnight disco (Pachyella violaceonigra). While I don’t mind telling someone that the little mushroom in their hand is called Tubaria furfuracea, I do feel embarrassed when informing them that they have a ‘scurfy twiglet’. There is nothing particularly wrong with these names, but they lack the weight and authority that comes with long usage. Also, I don’t think they really help: if people are having difficulty with names, the last thing they need is a whole new set of them. In my opinion, it is simply not possible to make up common names and expect them to become a useful currency.

Long Live Latin  indeed.

“Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us”

“Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us”

From Laudato Si, Pope Francis, 2015. Sections 222-223:

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment.
To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

All September’s #ExtinctinIreland posts in one handy page

As demanded by absolutely no-one, here are all the posts I have done this month on species extinct in Ireland since the coming of humanity….

Extinct in Ireland: September 1st, the sturgeon

Extinct in Ireland: September 2, the wolf

Extinct in Ireland, September 3. The Capercaillie

Extinct in Ireland, September 4th, the Bittern

Extinct in Ireland, September 5th, the Barberry Carpet Moth – last seen in Clonmel!

Extinct in Ireland: September 6th, Perkin’s Mining Bee (Andrena rosae)

Extinct in Ireland, September 7th, the Corn Bunting

Extinct in Ireland, September 8th, Triple Spotted Clay Moth (Xestia ditrapezium)

Extinct in Ireland, September 9th, Black-necked Grebe

Extinct in Ireland, September 10th, the Great Auk

Extinct in Ireland, September 11th. Meadow Saxifrage

Extinct in Ireland September 12th – Spiral Chalk Moss (Pterygoneurum lamellatum)

Extinct in Ireland, September 13th – Lapidary snail, Heligonica lapicida

Extinct in Ireland, September 14th, The Diminutive Diver (Bidessus minutissimus)

Extinct in Ireland, September 15th, The Beautiful Moss Beetle, Hydraena pulchella

Extinct in Ireland, September 16th, the wild boar

Extinct in Ireland, September 17th, Pheasant’s Eye (Adonis annua)

Extinct in Ireland, September 18th – the Osprey

Extinct in Ireland, September 19th, Spotted crake

Extinct in Ireland, 20th September, the Woodlark

Extinct in Ireland, September 21st – the red squirrel

Extinct in Ireland, September 22nd – the purple sea urchin -Paracentrosus lividus

Extinct in Ireland, September 23rd, the North Atlantic right whale

Extinct in Ireland, September 24th- Rannoch rush (Scheuchzeria pallustris) and the life of John Moore

Extinct in Ireland, September 25th, the mud pond snail, Omphiscola glabra

Extinct in Ireland, September 26th, Large copper (Lycaena Dispar)

Extinct in Ireland, September 27th – Small mountain ringlet (Erebia epiphron)

Extinct in Ireland, September 28th – the golden eagle

Extinct in Ireland, September 29th, the Lynx

Extinct in Ireland, September 30th, the crane

This slideshow requires JavaScript.