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.

Ender’s Shadow

Ender's Shadow

I read this sci-fi book a really long time ago (in 5th grade, if I remember correctly), but it is still one of my favorites. It is a parallel novel to the well-known Ender’s Game (both written by Orson Scott Card) and is not really a sequel, because it tells the same overall story, only from Bean’s perspective instead of Ender’s. Because the plots of the two books coincide, neither one is needed to understand the other—I read Ender’s Shadow first. And while one might be at first skeptical about a book with the same characters and same events as another, this is the element of new perspective done right. The first four chapters of Ender’s Shadow are actually a whole new story altogether—it shows us life on the streets, the complete opposite of the Wiggin family.

Bean is an amazing choice for perspective as he is even more genius than Ender. He remembers perfectly, learns instantly, and reasons very deeply, figuring out data that the adults hide from the kids, long before they are meant to be known. For this reason, Ender’s Shadow is the more logical book and the one I liked better.

Interestingly, both boys start as social outcasts: Ender is the third born in his family, allowed by the government for special purpose even though by law only two children per family are allowed; while Bean is a starving street urchin—a street gang which he joins calls him Bean, because they think he isn’t worth one.

Thoughts on the Final Battle

As readers of Ender’s Game know, Ender is the savior of mankind. But in this book, we learn it is really Bean who does most of the job behind the scenes. As the “simulations” drag on, Ender is drained, both physically and mentally; Bean is still able to keep a level head. And more importantly, Bean knows, without the teachers telling him, that the “simulations” are not really simulations—they are the real thing. For most of the simulations, Bean is an unknown hero, as Ender’s many lapses in strategy and tactics are remedied by Bean’s watch over the whole battle—Bean is given personal control of, at the insistence of Mazer Rackham, or Ender’s teacher, only a small number of ships, for the reason that he may concentrate on the big picture.

But at the final battle, the one at the Bugger (enemy alien) home world, in which Bugger ships outnumber human ships ten thousand to eighty, Bean is at a loss for strategy. Also, Mazer had given Bean the ability to assume commander himself, taking over Ender’s position. When the “simulation” first loads, Ender does not issue any orders, and everyone looks at Bean. Bean chooses not to take over, for the very reason the teachers had to trick the kids into thinking it was a game—any attack would be suicide, and Bean knew there were real men aboard the ships. Bean’s thoughts (Ender’s Shadow, 448):

The battle was unwinnable; it should not even be fought. The lives of the men on those ships were not to be wasted on such a hopeless Charge of the Light Brigade. I’m not General Burnside at Fredericksburg. I don’t send my men off to senseless, hopeless, meaningless death.

If I had a plan, I’d take control. I have no plan. So for good or ill, it’s Ender’s game, not mine.

But this is exactly where Bean has miscalculates the position: he realizes the only way to win is to use a certain weapon, Doctor Device, against the planet itself, but he believes there is no possible way to get the human ships close enough to the planet’s surface, through the swarm of enemy ships. Bean again (449):

There flashed into Bean’s mind the word Ender said in their first day of training as Dragon Army: Remember, the enemy’s gate is down. In Dragon Army’s last battle, when there was no hope, that was the strategy that Ender had used sending Bean’s squad to press their helmets against the floor around the gate and win. Too bad there was no such cheat available now.

Deploying Dr. Device against the planet’s surface to blow the whole thing up, that might do the trick. You just couldn’t get there from here.

It was time to give up. Time to get out of the game, to tell them not to send children to do grownups’ work. It’s hopeless, we’re done. “Remember,” Bean said ironically, “the enemy’s gate is down.”

Meanwhile, in Ender’s Game, we know it is precisely at this point that Ender, out of torment, gives up in his mind. Tired of the simulations, he just wants to flunk the last game, or the “final exam,” and then rest. So, due to rebellion, and not to tactics, he orders a direct assault of Doctor Device on the planet; this turns out to be exactly the right plan (Ender’s Game, 293):

I don’t care anymore, thought Ender. You can keep your game. If you won’t even give me a chance, why should I play?

Like his last game in Battle School, when they put two armies against him.

And just as he remembered that game, apparently Bean remembered it, too, for his voice came over the headset, saying, “Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.”

Molo, Soup, Vlad, Dumper, and Crazy Tom laughed. They remembered it, too.

And Ender also laughed. It was funny. The adults taking all this so seriously, and the children playing along, playing along, believing it too until suddenly the adults went too far, tried too hard, and the children could see through their game. Forget it, Mazer. I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules. If you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly—I’ll beat you unfairly first.

In that final battle in Battle School, he had won by ignoring the enemy, ignoring his own losses; he had moved against the enemy’s gate.

And the enemy’s gate was down.

If I break this rule, they’ll never let me be a commander. It would be too dangerous. I’ll never have to play a game again. And that is victory.

He whispered quickly into the microphone. His commanders took their parts of the fleet and grouped themselves into a thick projectile, a cylinder aimed at the nearest of the enemy formations. The enemy, far from trying to repel him, welcomed him in, so he could be thoroughly entrapped before they destroyed him. Mazer is at least taking into account the fact that by now they would have learned to respect me, thought Ender. And that does buy me time.

And it is also a plan which Bean thought would fail, because all the Buggers had to do was simply form a wall of fighters and the attack would be over. From Ender’s Shadow (450):

Ender didn’t seem to understand that there was no way to get Dr. Device to the planet’s surface.

Instead, his voice came into their ears, giving them orders. He pulled them into a tight formation, cylinders within cylinders.

Bean wanted to shout, Don’t do it! There are real men on those ships, and if you send them in, they’ll die, a sacrifice with no hope of victory.

But he held his tongue, because, in the back of his mind, in the corner of his heart, he still had hope that Ender might do what could not be done. And as long as there was such a hope, the lives of those men were, by their own choice when they set out on this expedition, expendable.

But as Ender sends the human ships to their doom, the Bugger ships do not form a wall in front of them. Bean immediately reasons why. Following this is one of the most beautiful and profound passages ever written on human compassion and sacrifice (451):

In fact, the maneuvers the Buggers were making were ludicrously wrong. For as Ender penetrated deeper and deeper into the planet’s gravity well, the Buggers were building up a thick wall of forces behind Ender’s formation.

They’re blocking our retreat!

At once Bean understood a third and most important reason for what was happening. The Buggers had learned the wrong lessons from the previous battles. Up to now, Ender’s strategy had always been to ensure the survival of as many human ships as possible. He had always left himself a line of retreat. The Buggers, with their huge numerical advantage, were finally in a position to guarantee that the human forces would not get away.

There was no way, at the beginning of this battle, to predict that the Buggers would make such a mistake. Yet throughout history, great victories had come as much because of the losing army’s errors as because of the winner’s brilliance in battle. The Buggers have finally, finally learned that we humans value each and every individual human life. We don’t throw our forces away because every soldier is the queen of a one-member hive. But they’ve learned this lesson just in time for it to be hopelessly wrong—for we humans do, when the cause is sufficient, spend our own lives. We throw ourselves onto the grenade to save our buddies in the foxhole. We rise out of the trenches and charge the entrenched enemy and die like maggots under a blowtorch. We strap bombs on our bodies and blow ourselves up in the midst of our enemies. We are, when the cause is sufficient, insane.

They don’t believe we’ll use Dr. Device because the only way to use it is to destroy our own ships in the process. From the moment Ender started giving orders, it was obvious to everyone that this was a suicide run. These ships were not made to enter an atmosphere. And yet to get close enough to the planet to set off Dr. Device, they had to do exactly that.

Get down into the the gravity well and launch the weapon just before the ship burns up. And if it works, if the planet is torn apart by whatever force it is in that terrible weapon, the chain reaction will reach out into space and take out any ships that might happen to survive.

Win or lose, there’d be no human survivors from this battle.

They’ve never seen us make a move like that. They don’t understand that, yes, humans will always act to preserve their own lives—except for the times when they don’t. In the Buggers’ experience, autonomous beings do not sacrifice themselves. Once they understood our autonomy, the seed of their defeat was sown.

This final battle scene is, in both books, one of the great moments of literature, as the fate of humanity is decided upon by the the minds of a dozen or so children.

No such depth of analysis or insight in the final battle is given in Ender’s Game, as Ender is so tired that at this point he can barely think; also, Ender is not as analytical as Bean. For the weight of the last quoted passage, and for Bean’s ultra-sharp mind, which is reflected in the writing, Ender’s Shadow is for me the better book.