In “How to Build an Android,” David Dufty tells the stranger-than-fiction story of roboticist David Hanson, who in 2005 cobbled together a group of technology experts to design and build an android replica of science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, who died in 1982. Why Dick? Artificial intelligence was a staple of the author’s work, most notably in his cops-vs.-androids novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” which was the basis for the film “Blade Runner.”
But “How to Build an Android” is all fact. Dufty details the technical process of building Dick 2.0 — from molding a replica of his face out of rubber to compiling an extensive digital database of his interviews and writings for the machine’s laptop-driven brain to reference during conversations. The result was an accurate if not quite bug-free likeness of the writer, which could chat idly with real people. For a while, the android Dick was ginning up a steady slate of gigs, appearing at comic-book conventions, academic events and promotional events for “A Scanner Darkly,” a film based on one of Dick’s books. But in a plot twist worthy of the author’s weirdest works, the android’s head has gone missing. In 2006, Hanson accidentally left it in the overhead luggage compartment of an airplane, and it has never been seen again.
In “Designer Flu,” which runs in this week’s issue of Science News, Tina Hesman Saey details how scientists working in the United States and Europe took a deadly virus — H5N1, better known as bird flu — and made it even more deadly by adapting it to become airborne. This was front-page news not long ago. The researchers were hoping to get an idea of what to do if a similar pandemic broke out in the wild, but U.S. agencies, fearing that rogue states and terrorists might use the information for ill, initially wanted to block publication of papers explaining how the adapted virus had been created; eventually, the agencies backed off. Saey’s article discusses some of the science that went into brewing up the bug, weighs the benefits and risks of restricting access to the information, and provides a few interesting tidbits. Among the more interesting ones: There was some hype involved. The lab-made strain wasn’t as deadly as initially supposed. According to Ron Fouchier, who conducted the experiments in the Netherlands, the custom-made bug can travel by air, but it’s not very good at doing so. And the dose that traveled via coughs and sneezes was not deadly to the ferrets used in the experiment. Still, nobody is looking to let it out of the lab, lest it mutate into a worse form.