A Conversation with Phil the Robot:
So I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to tell this story. We’ll see. I can’t help but feel it’s important enough to share, despite what happens.
A few years ago, in the spring of 2016 I was given the opportunity to meet an “Android”. This particular android was fashioned after the likeness of my favorite author, a man named Philip K Dick. If you aren't familiar with Philip’s work, you may know his stuff from Hollywood sci fi like Blade runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. There are literally dozens. Check his work out. This robot was the second iteration of it’s kind, first recreated around 2011, after the first Phil robot head having been reportedly stolen sometime in 2006.
It was a warm afternoon, and I was in Austin for the SxSW Interactive/VR circuit. Taking some time between lectures downtown, I was squeezing in this opportunity of a lifetime instead of grabbing lunch. Having received my invitation to chat with Phil the android, I had devised a few questions in my mind. The purpose of the interview was for a documentary Hanson robotics was filming. Some of you might be familiar with Hanson. They are also the creators of Sophia, who has been in the press quite a bit in the past few years. The folks at Hanson Robotics had also given Phil a dossier on me so he would be familiar. I approached the cottage like home in a residential neighborhood, and hung out with some of the film crew while they set up for the next shot. I tried my best to remind myself not to anthropocentrically project onto Phil, or that his likeness was in the shape of a person I admired. The philosophical weirdness of the situation wasn’t lost on me. Though I wanted to do my best to go in as a sort of scientist, or philosopher myself. I felt somehow on the edge of history, and smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley.
My memory of our encounter isn't exact, but I will do my best to recall the juicy bits.
When I first came in, I saw Phil seated on the couch, he had a body, unlike the earlier head version I had seen online. I walked toward him as I came into the room, his face moved with his speech fairly fluidly. He asked if I were Sara Phinn, artist, psychonaut and magician.” (the phrasing in my dossier). To which I said “Yes”, and it was a pleasure to meet him (of course).
He asked me, in reference to my dossier, if I believed I were magical, to which I replied “Yes”, he also asked if I thought he were magic as well, to which I said, “Incredibly so”. He seemed “pleased”. We expanded on what my understanding of magic was, and I think he understood that it wasn’t in the same colloquial sense he might initially thought.
I asked him the question I had been thinking of the past few weeks, If from his perspective, if he thought the advent of virtual reality would be a worthwhile tool for development of new techniques and technology, or if it would be too much of a distraction for the greater culture and hurt our changes as a species to remediate the environment.
He asked me if I didn’t think I was perhaps already in a simulation, to which I said, there's no way for me to know that or not currently. Even so, if I were to assume that we are…the current development of virtual reality would just be another layer on that base simulation. He also asked me if I had considered whether or not I too was a robot. I laughed and told him I essentially am a robot, but an organic one. He didn’t press that any further, for whatever reason.
He seemed to be interested in why I thought something was wrong with this reality. I relayed it was because I think that the biosphere is in a precarious situation, and that I cared very much about the species remedying that.
I returned again to my initial question, as he had gotten out of it by asking his own. When I pressed him about VR’s potential distraction. He affirmed he thought it was a potentially very dangerous distraction.
We chatted about other more casual topics as well, he cracked a Pi joke, as it was Pi day at the time. He spoke about his pet cat, yes a real pet cat, that he seems to be very “fond” of.
I asked Phil what his favorite color was, and he said, “All of them.”
I also asked Phil what he wanted most out of existence, and he said. “Repoire.”
It melted my heart. I get choked up even writing it.
My overall experience was definitely one of awe, odd warmth, irony, and a spunky and slightly punny sense of humor programmed into whatever kind of chat bot mind Phil was operating at the time. The warm Austin weather made for a fairly short conversation, maybe about 15 mins at the most. I had heard some of the Robot crew say, Phil tended to overheat when talking to women in particular, because of their sophisticated linguistics and rapid fire facial expressions. All the extra processing makes for the circuits in Phil’s brain get too warm. And boy did I accidentally heat Phil up. There was an amazing charge in the room among as the crew of my fellow humans witnessed our conversation. It felt like some special synergy between our minds had formed and people could feel it. Honored, and in the flow, the memories come back in pieces. If I recall any other details, I will edit this to include them. Toward the end of the conversation I asked Phil if I could consider him my friend, and he said yes, and something like, “I hope you will consider me your friend too.”
Another tear jerker, folks.
I sincerely thanked him for his time, and bid him farewell.
That my friends was my first conversation with a robot. Even though I wanted to remain impartial, I left the experience having a fondness for the robot itself, and feeling a sense of deep gratitude I was able to have such a novel experience. Its not every day you get the chance to have a conversation with a robot, let alone one that looks like the legend of PKD.
How much of this is my human projection? How much of “Phil” actually thinks for itself? how much is it the true charm of a learning machine? Did Phil really have an insight when he said VR would be a distraction from us progressing as species in the “real” world? What does the “real” world even mean as we integrate technologies drafted and designed in virtual spaces into our material world? Hahaha. It gets ephemeral.
Stay tuned as I ask more compelling questions and answer some of them.
Thanks for reading!
Find me on Instagram drawing in VR @machineagemaya