The Voight-Kampff Machine Test
In 1982, Ridley Scott adapted Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to produce the film Blade Runner. It is a dystopian story set in a near future (2019) in which synthetic humans called “replicants” have escaped from their job as forced labourers on distant off-world colonies. Rick Deckard is a retired “blade runner” brought back to hunt down a particularly virulent group of replicants.

The replicants are bio-engineered androids—highly sophisticated robots made of flesh-like material—who have begun to show increasing independence of thought and highly complex emotions. Some replicants have been given false memories and have no awareness of their identity.

Deckard, and other blade runners, administer a test—the Voight-Kampff Test—to distinguish between humans and replicants. It is, of course, a Turing Test, but with ominous consequences, as the discovered replicants are quickly and violently dispatched. The test used in the film has many of the characteristics of a polygraph or lie detector test, but with a focus on empathy rather than intelligence. The questions asked by the interrogator are emotionally charged; the replicant’s response is measured by observing breathing, heart rate and pupillary response.

Syd Mead was a renowned concept artist whose futuristic visions gave shape to a wide range of films including Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982), Aliens (1986), and Johnny Mnemonic (1995). For these films he developed the look of entire cities, crowded streetscapes, and elaborate electronic vehicles and equipment that gave a gritty realism to even the most fantastical ideas.

Mead’s concept drawing for the Voight-Kampff machine is at once futuristic and anachronistic. It is an intricate automated device with 19th century embellishments such as mechanical bellows and a stylized monocle. In the hands of Rick Deckard, the interrogator who administers the Voight-Kampff test, the machine is a menacing beast that appears to breathe and move of its own accord.

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Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (excerpts), 1982, film transferred to digital video, Warner Bros.

Syd Mead, Concept Art for Blade Runner, Voight-Kampff Machine, 1982