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Through the Scanner Darkly

Seems strange, but there are only two degrees of separation between me and the late, famous, science fiction author, Philip K. Dick [1] (“PKD”). If you aren’t familiar, Dick was the author of a number of stories which have since been made into major films such as: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and the recently-released film A Scanner Darkly. I’ve just got two degrees of separation from Philip K. Dick because of my “spare time” work on writing a soon-to-be-published book about two of his friends and protégés, Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock. In the course of writing that book, (A Comprehensive Dual Bibliography of James P. Blaylock & Tim Powers), I asked the authors questions about their old friend, Dick, and I spoke with other friends of his as well. He was apparently a very interesting character — brilliant, and more than a bit mysterious as well. PKD had a few unusual religious visions and appeared to suffer occasionally from paranoia and other schizophrenic bouts.

Last weekend, I got to see the most recent film inspired by a Philip K. Dick story, A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater. The film was really great, telling a futuristic story of an undercover cop who becomes addicted to the drug of choice for his surveillance subjects, and then becomes required to spy on himself in the course of his investigation. The undercover cops all wear these camouflage suits which morph together features from millions of individuals to obscure their identies from others and from each other. The film is astoundingly well-made, and is pretty entertaining overall.

I saw that Nelson Minar, one of Google’s engineers, is also apparently a reader of PKD, and he blogged his impressions about A Scanner Darkly [2], too. He agrees that it’s good, though I disagree with him: he thinks it won’t appeal to people who haven’t read the book, and I think it will. It strikes too many chords with people, even today, and the actor’s humor in the early parts saves it from being too dry/boring.

Dick’s stories still seem relevant, over twenty years after his death. His stories contrasted realistic characters against a twisted reality where commercialism and technology seem to’ve evolved past a reasonable point. He played around with the nature of reality itself, and his work seemed to segue smoothly into the cyberpunk movement, which I previously posted about.

In Blade Runner, the bounty hunter for escaped androids uses special tests to determine if a subject is an android vs. a human. To do this, they ask the subject a series of question and gauge their biometric responses to the questions. The questions smack of the famous, theoretical Turing Test [3] which might be used to determine a machine’s ability to immitate a human. Turing Tests have been of interest to researchers in artificial intelligence, since they suggest one method for assessing how successful they’ve been at getting a computer to achieve AI, or at least to achieve very human-seeming conversational/linguistic ability.

Although there were a lot of elements in the Minority Report film which were not in Dick’s original story, some of those elements melded into the film so well with his style of story-telling that one can easily imagine him approving of them. Some of those details included biometric systems which would photograph one’s retina and rapidly search for a match within a database. These systems seemed to be installed in public places and were used by police to locate suspects, and they were used by companies in order to deliver personalized, demographically-targeted advertising.

While I’d question the ability of machinery to automatically capture retina scans from crowds walking through public areas like in the Minority Report film, there are biometric systems in use today which capture individuals’ faces and perform automatic matching based on the facial characteristics. Police have used this to try to locate criminals and terrorists, just like in the film.

Oh, and the camouflage suit used in A Scanner Darkly? Professor Susumu Tachi of Japan and others have shown that it’s theoretically possible [4] to use a flexible digital graphic cloth in order to display images upon. Thin, flexible, digital display materials have been made possible by continuing advances in nanotech [5]. Considering this, I don’t think we can call A Scanner Darkly “science fiction” any longer! What other elements in that film were science fiction? Police bugging of individual’s homes and phones? Biometrics? Drugs synthesized from plants?

As I mentioned in my previous Cyberpunk posting [6], we really are already living in the cyberpunk reality. Philip K. Dick was a prophet! See A Scanner Darkly and tell me if I’m wrong.

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