Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A great work of imagination, with some very intriguing questions. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future: owning animals is a sign of social status though many animals are fake, i.e., electric; a radioactive dust cloud envelopes Earth, causing many to emigrate; and bounty hunters find and “retire” illegal androids. The novel focuses on the day of one bounty hunter, Rick Deckard.

The Will to Live

Yet, the dark fire waned; the life force oozed out of her, as he had so often witnessed before with other androids. The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled itself to.

An android coldly accepts death. It is programmed. A human fights to live. It is evolved.

But does this alone mean an android is less alive than a human? Is the will to live a prerequisite to life? It seems not. Androids, we learn, are capable of committing suicide via holding their breath. But human beings at times, when the cause is sufficient, sacrifice themselves as well. In Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow (parallel of Ender’s Game), for example, we learn that the only reason Ender is able to defeat the Buggers is that the Bugger queen thought humans, as sentient beings, were incapable of self-sacrifice. His final attack was a mass sacrifice.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the androids die for different reasons, however, than humans. Some androids, on learning they are to be retired, give that “mechanical, intellectual acceptance.” They don’t fight back or argue for the truth. It would be analogous to a criminal being ordered the death sentence. Rarely do they immediately accept death.

“Will you kill me in a way that won’t hurt? I mean, do it carefully. If I don’t fight; okay? I promise not to fight. Do you agree?”

“I can’t stand the way you androids give up.”

Artificial Intelligence, and the Turing Test

The Turing Test is an abstract, hypothetical test on artificial intelligence. If a computer can successfully pass off as a human, it passes the test. If not, it fails.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, two such tests exist. The more prominent is the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test. The tester asks the subject various questions drawing emotional responses to determine whether the subject is an android. More specifically, it measures response times in the eye. A human responds much faster to emotional stimuli than does a android. This is how Rick determines whether Rachael is an android.

The other is the Boneli Reflex-Arc Test, which is only mentioned, not used. According to another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, this test is “simpler” in that it does not require a tester to ask questions. It is fairly automatic and tests the inner biology of the subject. In a way, it almost cheating, and is not truly a Turing Test.


Right now, humans are still far more intelligent than computers. Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach points out that we humans are able to “jump out” of our thinking, thus starting a process of meta-thinking. For instance, we might be in the middle of calculating an 3-digit by 3-digit multiplication problem in our heads, and half way through, we suddenly realize, why don’t we just search the answer on Google? A computer calculating this problem, however, would never (at least our current generation of computers) think of doing that; it would simply go through the calculation. But at least it can do it in a split second.

Perhaps a more relevant example is the game of chess. A human grandmaster can look at a position, pick out three or four moves that seem good, analyze a few moves deep into one line, and then based on intuition, decide that the line is not worth analyzing any further, and then switch to analyzing a different line. The computer isn’t so smart. It has to go through EVERY possible move in the position, calculating EVERY possible reply to that move, and then EVERY possible reply to that too, and so on. The number of positions to calculate rises exponentially with each step, and eventually the computer is forced by programing to a stop. The computer, when analyzing an unpromising line, doesn’t say, “Oh, this looks bad, I won’t analyze it any more.” Instead, it will do as it’s been programmed to. The human will. The human can jump out of the current thinking process (analyzing one line) into a higher level of thought (this line is bad, so I’ll look at a different one).

In the same chess example, humans can jump out even further. Supposing the game is lasting very long, the human might need to go to the restroom at some point. At that point, the human’s subconscious, which machines don’t yet have, will tell him to do something other than stare at the chessboard. What if a fire starts? Our current machine won’t even notice. It’ll just continue analyzing the position. The human player would have long been gone. The human has jumped completely out of chess thought. The computer can’t.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the androids are often distinguishable from humans by this trait, that they cannot think at higher levels as humans can. Only one time I remember does an android demonstrate this human-like feat (correct me if I’m wrong):

“When I used the word ‘human,”‘ Roy Baty said to Pris, “I used the wrong word.”

Roy Baty realizes that by using the word “human,” he has betrayed the fact that he is an android, he catches himself. But other than that, androids seem to be characterized by their straightforward, mechanical thinking.

What is Deckard?

Is Rick Deckard himself an android? We have no idea. I strongly suspect he is. At one point, he asks himself a question from the Voigt-Kampff test and tells the other bounty hunter, Phil Resch, to watch the degree of the emotional response but not his reaction time. And as we know, Rick earlier used the method of measuring reaction time on Rachael to determine whether she was an android. Plus, Rick does not show much emotion in the book. The androids he retires seem to be more lively than him.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982) is the film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It’s brilliant. 9/10.

It keeps the spirit of the book but changes much of the story, completely leaving out some themes. But that was necessary, and the filmography is excellent—they’ve created a convincing new world. Screenplay isn’t supposed to be the same thing as the original (I’m reading Syd Field’s Screenplay right now).

Blade Runner makes the question of whether Rick is a human or android even more prominent. It does so via an origami unicorn that Rick remembers from his dreams. In the end he sees one in front of his door. If he were an android with implanted memories, it would make sense how somebody knew about the origami unicorn dream.

I actually watched the film first. The book is Cornell University’s summer reading assignment, and the first time, I believe, I have ever read a science fiction book for school. Anyway, both the book and the film are outstanding.

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