The idea of building a robotic likeness of the science fiction writer Philip K Dick arose in 2004 when David Hanson visited Memphis to give a public exhibition of his latest robot at the time, Eva.
Researchers at the Fedex Institute of Technology (FIT) such as Art Graesser, Andrew Olney, Suresh Susarla and Eric Mathews were keen to work with Hanson to build some kind of robot. Hanson had expertise in hardware, while a lab at the FIT, the Institute For Intelligent Systems, specialised in software systems.
An android is a robot in human form. The goal was to push the boundaries of what could be done with existing technology to create a synthesis of science, art, and engineering.
The robot was constructed simultaneously in Dallas, Texas and Memphis, Tennessee over 2004 and early 2005. It used Hanson’s patented synthetic skin (f’rubber) and a lifelike rendition of Philip K Dick.
The ARRI robotics lab in Texas helped, particularly with providing quality engineered parts and servomotors.
The AI was for the most part created in Memphis by Andrew Olney.
The soundproof room – known as “Club Valis” – was built by Mike O’Nele of the Memphis Drama Department.
The robot was fully autonomous. In other words, it operated without human intervention. it tracked people coming in and out of the room with face recognition software, and would greet faces that it knew. It listened to verbal input, used complex algorithms that incorporated LSA to generate a response, and would respond verbally using speech synthesis.
While other robots have achieved similar levels of authenticity since, and in some ways have surpassed the engineering and AI design sophistication of the Philip K Dick robot, at the time it was a remarkable achievement and was at the cutting edge: all the more so because it was produced for a fraction of the budget of the products of large corporate robotics labs.
Beyond that, the android captured the imagination of the public in an unprecedented way that other robotic or android endeavours aspire to, but have never reached.