Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff Test Gets Real

You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down and see a tortoise. It’s crawling toward you.

Any Sci-Fi fan knows this is a question from the iconic Voight-Kampff test, as made famous by the movie Blade Runner. Humans pass the test. Replicants fail and are “retired”. We may not have replicants just yet, but  [Tom Meehan] is building his own version of the Voight-Kampff machine. He’s entered it in the 2017 Hackaday Sci-Fi Contest.

The machine itself is an odd mix of 70’s and 80’s electronics with older technology. Three mini CRT displays, a sensor arm, and a bellows are some of the machine’s best-known features. [Tom] is starting with the sensor arm, an odd mix of belts and telescoping rods. He’s already got a manually operated prototype built. Add a motor, and one part of the machine is ready for action.

[Tom’s] version of the Voight-Kampff test isn’t going to be a just movie prop. He plans to add a sensor suite which will turn his machine something of a modern polygraph. A Non-contact Temperature sensor will measure blush response. Iris images will be captured by a Raspberry Pi NoIR camera. Pulse oxygen and galvanic skin response will also be captured by a separate hand module. All this data will be processed by a Raspberry Pi computer.

There’s quite a lot of work to be completed. Let’s hope for humanity’s sake that [Tom] gets it done before the contest deadline of March 6.

63 thoughts on “Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff Test Gets Real

    1. Reread what you just wrote. Contemplate. If you fail to reach enlightenment see below:

      Polygraph = device for measuring multiple physiological characteristics. Blood pressure, heart beats, breathing frequency etc.
      Modern polygraph = a modern device for measuring multiple physiological characteristics. E.g. (as noted above) detecting blushing response using modern sensors.

      1. He was referring to the polygraph’s other name, “lie detector”. Which is utter bullshit. I’m sure you knew that and were just being obtuse.

        I can’t think of any practical reason to collect those particular readings. I suppose it’s a fun way of checking your blood pressure. But as a bit of cyberpunk art, it adds class if it actually reads things.

        If it beeps in a convincing enough manner, our guy could follow the polygraph companies, and market it to ignorant businesses to catch unwanted replicants in the workplace.

        1. He might get into trouble if he samples the film soundtrack to provide “convincing” noises.

          OTOH, if he publishes the plans and parts lists, he has no control over what the kit-builders do to provide the various sounds emitted by the machine in the movie.

          I thought the best part of the movie prop was the bellows, although I couldn’t work out how it managed to ignore the operator’s breath – part of the setting-up procedure, i guess.

  1. I’m a great fan of Philip K. Dick and loved that movie on many levels, but I was always irritated by two things: what was the function of the flames that intermittently shot out of the tops of the tall buildings, and why didn’t the replicants have some easily accessed, but impossible to remove method of identifying them installed at birth?

    1. I think the replicates were wayward ones that then probably disabled their ID?
      As for the flames, pressure relieve, of something that builds up pressure. I mean oil wells also have flames on top and you accept that reality right? Or maybe advertising, the future version of flailing inflatable tube men?

      1. I can think of several ways right now that this could be done in a way that would be impossible to defeat, the most obvious one being a genetic test for what is apparently many ways these individuals are different at that level than the general population.

        1. I’ve been listening to a lot of old sci Fi audiobooks and it’s funny how many of their problems would be solved by common technology from today. The Spy In the Elevator could have been handled with a cell phone and some CCTV banks in a security office.
          A saliva DNA test would probably spot a replicant quickly.

          1. Do replicants have different DNA? Aren’t they supposed to be indistinguishable, even if you dissect them?

            As for “why didn’t they have special labels”, well, it’d have been a short book if they had.

          1. Given it is an adaptation of the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I suspect not much. Anyway like most of Philip K. Dick’s work it is centered around self-identity issues so I shouldn’t nitpick a plot device, but it is a bit glaring.

          2. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, written by PKD in 1968. Sometimes you just have to roll with the story being set in an alternate reality where something new and easy never was developed, leaving the original problem (which is PKD’s obsession with “what is human”) hard to resolve.

          3. I’m reading Do Androids Dream right now (about half way through as of writing this) and the DNA testing is brought up in the book. When Rick is testing Rachael at the Rosen building and he first calls her out as an andy and she says she’s human Rick tells her he wants a bone marrow analysis made of her. He says “it can eventually be organically determined whether you’re android or not.” Rachel responds by saying “legally, I can’t be forced to undergo a bone marrow test. That’s been established in the courts.”

          4. They can’t be forced into DNA testing, but apparently can be summarily executed in the streets without due process. Frankly this raise far more questions than it answers, no?

          5. No, a human can’t be forced into bone marrow testing, and Rachel was a registered human being. And without the test, nobody could prove different. Of course she actually was a replicant (don’t think that’s much of a spoiler), but proving it just wasn’t that easy.

        2. But… Once you know how genetics works, and you are at a point where you can perform a DNA test, you quickly realize that to construct beings like the replicants, you would have to use genetic engineering to pull it off. Consider how complex such a being’s DNA is, and how difficult it would be to implement it perfectly. If you can achieve that, then engineering the replicants DNA to also fool a DNA test would probably be a trivial task in comparison.

          PKD probably didn’t know about DNA or the concept of genetic engineering when he wrote the novel, but it would make alot of sense if the corporation that made the replicants had chosen to obfuscate the replicants DNA and make it look like regular human DNA for the sake of IP protection. Can’t copy the genome and make it your own if you can’t figure out how it ticks.

          I would imagine if PKD were still alive, and he was asked about whether DNA would have been a better option to ID replicants over the Voight-Kampff test, he would probably have said something similar to what I’m suggesting here. It fits nicely and we still get the dramatic effect of forcing suspected replicants thrpugh the Voight-Kampff test.

          1. Alternatively, if your civilization has the technical know-how to make replicants in the first place and the DNA wasn’t obfuscated in some way, it would be easy for someone to produce a set of retro viruses that could be used to overwrite the genetic markers used to identify replicants with something closer to normal human markers. That may be another explanation of why they need the Voight-Kampff test, the replicants that are being hunted are the ones that have managed to alter their DNA to hide what they are.

          2. Alternatively again, these replicants might have been made specifically to genetically pass as humans. They could be government models made for black ops and deep cover infiltration missions that have gone awry, seeking freedom. That would also be a good reason they can’t be identified via DNA testing.

          3. I don’t want to belabor the point but if the replicants had that degree of knowledge and control over their DNA they would have been able to defeat the part that was killing them early.

            I don’t expect high accuracy from SF in technical matters because you have to grant the creator broad literary licence to tell a compelling story. However I don’t like glaring inconsistencies particularly when they are central to the plot, as is the case here with the Voight-Kampff test.

          4. The whole DNA testing thing isn’t the point of the book. If it were written now I suppose PKD would have to cover that, since millions of bad cop dramas and paternity gameshows have convinced the public that they understand how DNA works completely. But to discuss it is irrelevant. Rick pops in, gives everyone a prick with a disposable sample taker, and that’s that plotline over with. Then the Rosen Association remember they put a remote self-destruct into each Andy’s brain, wipe their brows, and press a big red button.

            The Rosen Association all go home early for cognac and promotions, and Rick, Rachel, and his new electric sheep have freaky robot sex for the remaining 2 hours of the film. Philip K Dick starves to death in obscurity.

          5. Well, they did have a four-year lifespan – that’s a DNA fingerprint/sequence that no human would have.

            It did puzzle me that Tyrell told Roy that he couldn’t fix the four-year lifespan. Presumably the replicants were at least based on a human template – two legs, two arms, two eyes, ten fingers, ten toes, etc, etc – so wouldn’t a limited lifespan be an option that was added in? Tyrell makes it sound like a problem they couldn’t solve.

            Of course it’s odds-on he was lying to Roy.

      2. Landfills, sewage treatment, farm manure tanks and holding pits generate methane, AKA swamp gas. Heavier than air it is important to prevent it pooling in low areas as it displaces oxygen. Farms have to deal with it continually. A deadly and invisible hazard we lose lots of people to every year. Easiest way to deal with it is to burn it off.

        1. Pretty sure that methane is LIGHTER then air…not by much, but you can make balloons of it lift off.
          The one you are talking about is probably plain old CO2, which is both present in swamps and in places with volcanic activity, responsible for a lot of lost lives…

    2. Well since it’s the future and everyone is eating vegan (hey meat is too expensive) the flames are farts being flamed off. Also here’s something to think off, in the movie Rachael took many more questions to be found out so if you ask enough questions even a normal human would fail therefore the VK is a fake and there is no difference, morally, between humans and replicants. Let that sink in.

          1. PKD’s books are well, well worth reading. And fortunately his need for speed money meant he churned them out quick, which means they’re short.

            Ubik is probably his best, they’re all pretty great though. There’s a general vibe to a lot of them, a paranoia, “reality” shifting about under you, never being able to be sure what’s real. I mentioned the speed, right? In many ways PKD was a machine for turning drugs into paranoia into short fiction into money for more drugs. Like a beautiful, psychotic homeostasis. I wouldn’t spend 10 minutes in his mind for anything.

            Anyway… yeah Ubik. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. He does stuff that no other writer has.

          2. I agree with Greenaum, UBIK was my first PKD novel and I finished it the day I picked it up. I couldn’t put it down. PKD wrote so much good sci-fi that I think about 10 of his stories have been turned into major movies (total recal, blade runner, the adjustment beaureau, scanner darkly, minority report, just to name a handful) and a couple of dozen owe several of their plot elements to his ideas. It’s amazing that he’s created so many great stories and yet most people have never heard of him. He had a rough life, he didn’t make much money in his career and died far to early. If you are new to sci-fi or if you’ve never heard of PKD pick up one of his books you will not be disappointed!

          3. Yup. In fact you’re not a proper scifi fan unless you’ve read some PKD. If you’ve read some and didn’t like it, then I suppose you’re a scifi fan but you’re a bit weird. Easily one of the best, and I can’t name any better ones. Miles ahead of Asimov, who I’ve also read a ton of. PKD’s better than any present-day writer too.

            But it’s not a competition! It’s a free market, where sales determine whether an author eats or starves, that’s all.

    3. This is a normal thing even today.

      There’s a lot of industry that requires flammable gasses be burned off. There’s a few places here in Calgary where you can see large flames out of the tops of the buildings at night.

    4. If the replicants are essentially clones with “upgrades”, then DNA testing would reveal shortened telomeres, (hence the shortened lifespan issue as well). PKD would not have known about any of this in 1968, so testing for this wouldn’t have been something he would have come up with, any more than he would have come up with embedded bar-codes.

      1. Regardless, in my opinion the Voight-Kampff machine was a weak plot device even for the time, moreso because of its central role in the narrative. Look I think it’s a OK tale that made a great movie largely because the cinematography and the acting transcended the story’s inherent flaws, but quite frankly the novel it was based on wasn’t PKDs best effort.

        1. Are you MENTAL!? Do you demand schematic diagrams of every McGuffin in a film? The V-K test was essential, because the point was that, through the years, man’s use of machines had got to the point where we’d fairly unarguably re-created slavery. Nothing physiological or psychological. There was no obvious difference between humans and the feeling, thinking, conscious, striving machines that slaved for them.

          Except for the bit about them being cold-blooded, non-empathic killers. Which made them all the creepier as antagonists, and again showed contrasts and similarities between the replicants and human beings.

          We’d re-created ourselves and treated them terribly!

          Most films don’t work that well if you analyse them as scientific hypotheses! The whole V-K thing was necessary because it enabled the plot to work, and the whole point of the story. Defeating it with some technical measure would have made a pretty pointless film. That’s not the point!

        2. I think some of the issue with the VK machine comes from how the reader is interpreting the term “android”. Much like how in I am Legend, the grey creatures are referred to as Vampires but by modern definition we may prefer to think of them as zombies (or something else). The animals (ie: Rick’s pet electric sheep) tend to fit the description of “androids” similar to the terminator, where you have a meeting of flesh and machine. The “andys”, in particular the new Nexus 6 models are actually more like human clones who are grown in an adult state, and are created with false memories in place. Similar to the concept of humans in Ghost in the Shell who’ve had their “Ghost” hacked, they don’t necessarily know they’re not human. If they work a terrible job, like doing the heavy labor colonizing mars, they don’t have a problem with the suffering because they believe that it’s what they’ve always wanted, it’s what they’ve done all their life, not knowing that they may be only a year old. It’s when an Andy realizes that they are clones and that they are slaves to humans they revolt. The only way to tell them apart (and this is covered as well with the obsession of humans with the new religion “Mercerism” and the empathy boxes people use to group suffer) is that there are certain things that you cannot program into an Andy, you can’t program in empathy that is something a person learns through suffering. There seems to be a conflict in humanity in the book as well, in that everyone had access to mood machines that they could use to make themselves feel however they needed to in order to get through the day. Mercerism may be the backlash to Humans no longer needing to feel guilt, shame or sadness, combined with fake humans that truly cannot feel these emotions. So people need to practice suffering.
          The Nexus 6 was more advanced than prior andys. Older andys could fake empathy, but they used canned responses. The responses of the Nexus 6 were much more diverse and I think they mention they could combine responses, so it was good at simulating empathy. Rick only really nails Rachel when he mentions that his briefcase is made of baby skin. The issue I think is she responded when a real human would not as there is no way a briefcase could be made of baby skin, but Rachel went into a full blown reaction instead of just rolling her eyes and saying that’s stupid.

          I think what’s more difficult to explain in the plot is why the Rosen corp would bother building such realistic fake humans? That’s the real plot hole, why make a fake human that does the same amount of work as your last fake human, but make it so realistic you can’t distinguish it from a real person? The only explanation in the book is “well that’s what the colonists keep asking for…” That struck me as kinda weak. That, and the fact that you could then shoot said escaped andy instead of just arresting them. I don’t think the VK machine is that bad of a plot device. They mention how much easier andy’s from even a couple of years prior to the Nexus 6 were to spot, and they mention that the police can’t legally force someone into a DNA test. The VK is supposed to be a portable, easy to administer test that could be used at a checkpoint or in an immigration office that doesn’t require a lab, and up until the point in the novel it was more than effective enough at spotting an andy. We the readers are just dropping in right at the point where the technology was making it obsolete, which is not too hard to believe.

          1. quote: The only explanation in the book is “well that’s what the colonists keep asking for…” That struck me as kinda weak.

            Hmm
            1) if we look at the sex-doll industry, it seems that some humans demand highly realistic humanoid machines.
            2) in a lot of bars or places ordering snacks or drinks could be replaced by machines which they often are, but often also are not, indicating some customers somehow enjoys or prefers seeing a human “slave”, opening a bottle etc, even to the point that they are willing to wait in line to be served?!

            “serve” comes from latin “servus” meaning slave. in the past divide and conquer was used to divide the slaving population between slaves and servants (again slaves)… not unlike how party systems are a means to divide humans in say republicans and democrats, which mean the same thing but differ only in language (latin or greek):

            “res” matters/things/cases (as in judging)/affairs (to be be decided on)
            “publica” the public/the people (conjugation genitive so “belonging to the public”)
            so republic basically means “power to the people”

            “demos” common people
            “kratos” rule/strength/power
            so democracy basically means “power to the people”

    1. Watch the scene again – The tortoise is crawling toward you. You reach down and flip the tortoise onto it’s back. The emotional response isn’t just due to the helpless dying tortoise – it’s the fact that the person being tested murdered it.

        1. Here, the local version goes like “You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you announce to your companion: ‘I have good news and I have bad news… I will start with the bad news: our food has run out, so we will have to start eating sand… The good news, we have plenty of sand!’ “

  2. Would it be worth it to use a colour reading from the camera to back up the temperature sensor – the skin might turn a little pinker, corresponding with the increase in temperature.

    Not as useful for darker-toned skin, of course.

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