Quick notes:

  • Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was the inspiration for the hit movie Blade Runner

  • The book explores the relationship between AI and humans and, asking questions about what happens when we can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake

  • Sci-fi books and movies have been tackling real questions about the advancement of AI for decades

In 1968, Philip K. Dick published a book with a question for a title and a million problems hiding within the plot. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was a quick hit after publication and remains popular today, mostly in the form of the movie Blade Runner. But the storyline is terrifyingly more than just fiction. The dreaming robots of Dick’s fictional world may be more real than we know.

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What is the book about?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep focuses on bounty hunter Rick Deckhard; he roams the universe finding and “retiring” robots who have escaped and might prove dangerous to people or planets. Deckhard’s society is both familiar to modern readers and wholly futuristic: Earth has just suffered through World War Three, and much of the world’s population now calls other planets (including Mars) home.

As Deckhard tries to rise higher and higher in status and power, he finds himself enmeshed in a world where nothing is safe and things are rarely as they seem. Deckhard and readers are both plunged into situations in which reality is all too questionable. Is anything real, and can anyone (or anything) be trusted?

Why does the book matter?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep isn’t just an interesting book for the die-hard sci-fi fan. The plotline, the characters, and the lingering questions of the novel are ones that hit all too close to home in our tech-filled world. Readers are left wondering if technology today is as realistic as Dick’s robots–would we know if we were talking to them, controlled by them, or even working for them?

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Unfortunately, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep poses more questions than answers, and some of the deeper questions are even scarier than the humanlike tech concerns. Are we as humans incapable of telling fact from fiction? Do we put too much faith in our science and our technology and our occasional desire to do good for others? Is it inevitable that we destroy ourselves? With the growing intelligence of our smartphones, smartwatches, and smart houses, the answers might be getting too close for comfort.

Are there other books that might hint at our AI-controlled future?

The genre of science fiction is full of predictions for our future. AI-focused stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein have been warning us about putting too much faith in technology and fake friends for decades. Other authors have inspired fear of the unknown by giving us a less-defined but equally terrible enemy that we have created and/or made even worse through our all-too-human meddling (see other Philip K. Dick novels, The Space Merchants, and Starship Troopers).

Whatever books you read or movies you watch, the truth of the matter is hard to avoid: AI is increasingly taking over our lives, and there might not be anything we can do to stop it. Next time you want a real scare, consider turning to the sci-fi channel instead of watching a horror flick. The scariest thing is that sci-fi is probably more realistic.

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