Once an A.I. surpasses us, there’s no reason to believe it will feel grateful to us for inventing it—particularly if we haven’t figured out how to imbue it with empathy.
-Tad Friend, “How Frightened Should We Be of A.I.?” The New Yorker May 14, 2018 issue
Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep explores the advent of Artificial Intelligence, taking place in a period of a little over 24 hours in the year 2021 (originally 1992). We begin with Rick Deckard waking up in his San Francisco apartment and debating his wife over the merits of their “Penfield mood organ,” which they can program to make them feel like whatever they feel like feeling. Rick then goes up to his roof and tends to his electric sheep, which he’s ashamed of while lusting after his neighbor’s live horse.
Meanwhile, in a completely abandoned apartment building out in the suburbs, John Isidore, a “special” or “chickenhead” due to his low intelligence (his impairment likely due to nuclear fallout), is getting ready for work driving a truck for an electric animal hospital, watching the “Buster Friendly” program on TV before engaging with his “empathy box,” through which he merges with Wilbur Mercer and everyone else also using their empathy box. Mercer climbs an endless hill in the desert and has rocks hurled at him by the killers who stopped him from using his gift to reverse time and bring things back from the dead. After disengaging from the box, Isidore gets very excited when he hears someone else in his abandoned building.
Rick reports to work at the Hall of Justice as an android bounty hunter. Androids are the humanoid robots that became prominent after the nuclear World War Terminus, when the government used them as incentives to get people to colonize Mars. None are supposed to be on Earth, but some of the “Nexus-6” types have become so intelligent that they’ve killed their human owners and escaped and are on Earth trying to pass as human. The most prominent bounty hunter in Rick’s department has recently been severely injured by one of these Nexus-6 androids that he was trying to “retire,” and Rick is going to take over his list of androids. He flies up to Seattle to visit the Rosen Corporation that produces the Nexus-6 types in order to test the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, their means of differentiating humans from androids. The CEO tries to trick him into thinking it doesn’t work by making him think that the young woman he’s presented as his niece, Rachael Rosen, is a human who has incorrectly registered as an android, but then Rick figures out she actually is an android.
Meanwhile, Isidore eagerly visits his new neighbor, a young girl who initially identifies herself as Rachael Rosen but then amends this to Pris Stratton, and who is unfamiliar with common things like the Buster Friendly program. Isidore goes to work, picking up a dying cat he thinks is electrical but turns out to be real.
Rick proceeds to pursue the androids on his list, retiring the first when it shows up posing as a Soviet officer sent to help him destroy the androids. When he pursues the next android on his list, an opera singer, she calls the cops on him and he’s taken to a police station he didn’t know existed that turns out to be run by the third android on his list, Garland, whom he barely manages to kill with the help of another bounty hunter there, Phil Resch, whom Garland tried to convince him was also an android. But Phil helps Rick capture and kill the opera singer, and though Rick thinks he enjoys killing too much to be human, he turns out to pass the empathy test and prove human. Rick realizes he’s started to feel empathy for androids.
Meanwhile, when Isidore comes home after work and visits Pris, two other people show up, Roy and Irmgard Baty, whom Isidore eventually realizes are androids along with Pris. They set up defenses against the bounty hunter that got the others.
Having earned more money than he’s ever seen from his bounties but nonetheless depressed by his work, Rick stops on the way home to buy a live goat. His wife urges him to use the empathy box and merge with Mercer, but he doesn’t find it helpful that Mercer’s advice is that he’ll be required to do wrong no matter what. His boss pressures Rick to retire the three remaining androids on his list that night so he can take them by surprise. He takes up Rachael Rosen’s offer to help him, though she only agrees to if he sleeps with her, which he does. After he finds out she’s slept with and manipulated several other bounty hunters, he says he’s going to kill her, but finds himself unable to and drops her off.
The androids and Isidore are listening to a major announcement Buster Friendly makes on his program that Mercerism is a hoax staged from a Hollywood studio and that Mercer is not really suffering. Isidore finds a live spider, and Pris cuts off half its legs to see if it can still walk. They confirm that Buster Friendly is an android. Isidore uses his empathy box and talks to Mercer, who says he is a fraud but that the announcement won’t change anything. He gives Isidore his spider with the legs restored. They hear the bounty hunter arrive and send Isidore out to meet him. Rick asks Isidore to show him what apartment they’re in; Isidore says if Rick kills him he won’t be able to merge with Mercer anymore, and won’t show him where they are. Rick proceeds on his own and runs into a man who identifies himself as Mercer, who warns him that one of the androids isn’t in the apartment but is sneaking up from behind him—the one who looks like Rachael. Rick manages to shoot her. He goes to the apartment door and impersonates Isidore to get the last two androids to let him in, and shoots them as well.
When Rick gets home, his wife tells him a young woman has killed their goat by pushing it off the roof. He gets back into his hovercar and flies north to the desert where no one lives. He starts climbing up a hill and someone throws a rock at him. When he confuses his own shadow for Mercer he gets back in his car, but then sees something move that turns out to be a toad, which are supposed to be extinct. He’s rejuvenated and flies home with it, but then his wife discovers it’s electric. Rick finally goes to bed and his wife orders some artificial flies for the toad, saying her husband is devoted to it. The End.
A big part of what makes this story so compelling, apart from the deft brushstrokes with which he paints his futuristic world–with mood organs and hovercars on the periphery of the main-attraction androids–is that it has an internal conflict to match its external one, the external one being Deckard versus android, and the internal one being Deckard versus himself when he starts to empathize with androids. Phil Resch turns out to be human, but exhibits a lack of humanity in his lust for killing, a counterpoint to the opera singer who produces such beauty, begging the question of why she actually needs to be killed. Though Rick never really asks this question directly or challenges his boss, it becomes manifest in the way his work depresses him. Isidore seems to be a version of Rick’s id (his name does have “is id” in it) in that he openly empathizes with the androids to the point that he actually defends their lives, doing what Rick can’t do. (And all the while Rick’s worried that what he won’t be able to do is shoot the Rachael Rosen lookalike, but he actually does that without much trouble.) It seems like Isidore’s function is largely thematic, then, because his defending the androids doesn’t actually do all that much in the plot—he doesn’t give up their location to Rick the bounty hunter because he knows Rick wants to kill them, but Rick then finds them on his own fairly easily, and they still end up dead. For as much setup as Isidore got, this felt like a little bit of a letdown.
A nice trick that Dick used at the beginning was not revealing right away that Rick was a bounty hunter. We get a whole chapter of him before he goes to work without any clear clue as to what his work actually is. He is made sympathetic and patently human by a material desire–a living animal, which of course thematically is the perfect object for him to desire. The desire is nicely reinforced throughout the text by Rick constantly referring to his Sidney’s catalogue to check the monetary value of animals. (This life with a price on it seems to possibly parallel the androids, who have a bounty on them.) Rick’s desire for live animals seems to ultimately play more of a role in the plot than Isidore does when the android Rachael Rosen, in revenge for his killing the other androids, kills the animal that he was able to attain thanks to the money from killing those androids. I felt as Rick did in response to this, that he deserved this, not that it proved the androids’ lack of humanity; if anything, it seemed another piece of evidence of how human-like they actually were. This gesture made Rachael Rosen seem genuinely pained from the loss of her fellow androids, which one might even designate as her friends. The irony of the whole concept of the book is that the androids become more threatening the more human they become, but at the same time should actually be becoming less threatening. If an android were to achieve full humanity, then what would be the point in killing it? All the while there’s the backdrop of nuclear apocalypse, ironclad evidence for the dangerous and destructive impulses of humanity; it’s also thematically perfect that this is the environment that gave rise to the androids, which become symbols for nuclear arms themselves as they are a potentially destructive force that is the product of humanity’s intelligence.
The Mercer thread also offers an interesting exploration of humanity’s reliance on religion—and Mercer comes to play a direct role in the plot when he warns Rick about one of the androids sneaking up from behind him. The empathy box which allows the merging with Mercer and the androids eventually revealing Mercer to be a fraud seem to show that religion is as real as people’s belief in it. Mercer showing up to Rick outside of the empathy box would seem to show him to be literally real, but this is undermined when Rick flies out to the desert by himself and inadvertently becomes Mercer, which implies that Mercer exists within the individual and not independently of it, and so maybe he just manifested to Rick outside the empathy box as a manifestation of Rick’s own will. The toad that lifts Rick’s spirit so much but turns out to be fake also underscores this reading of the function of religion, especially in conjunction with concluding lines of the book in which Rick’s wife declares his devotion to it. Meanwhile, the question of whether these androids really needed to be killed to protect humanity seems to be left open. The question of whether empathy actually makes us human seems to be left open as well, since Phil Resch and the near nuclear apocalypse show humanity showing a manifest lack of empathy.
In some ways, we seem a world away from the world that in the book is only a couple of years distant—we’re not ready to colonize Mars and while we are developing A.I.’s, we haven’t reached the point where they’ve evolved to near human. In other ways, the question of our humanity in conjunction with nuclear war is as pertinent as ever. The different plot threads spool out the question of how we view and value life, which perfectly intersect in an exchange Rick has with Rachael Rosen when he first lands at the Rosen Corporation:
“You have no difficulty viewing an android as inert,” the girl said. “So you can ‘retire’ it, as they say.”
“Do you have the group selected out for me?” he said. “I’d like to—” He broke off. Because, all at once, he had seen their animals.
Rick will turn out to have trouble viewing the androids as “inert,” and the book’s exploration of humanity manifest through the androids’ increasing likeness to humans recalls another recent New Yorker article, in which Paul Bloom, a philosopher who analyzes empathy, argues that it’s not dehumanization that enables us to commit atrocities against our fellow humans, as so many have hypothesized, but in fact the opposite, since we’re able to better relish a particular group’s pain and humiliation because we perceive them as human:
“What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”