Robots, Replicants, and Artificial People: The Science Behind ‘Blade Runner’

Seeker's Bad Science podcast explores genetic engineering and android anxiety in director Ridley Scott's classic 1982 sci-fi film.

Regularly ranked among the greatest science fiction films ever made, Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner has proven alarmingly prophetic. An inspired cross between film noir and dystopian sci-fi, Blade Runner explored issues of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering years before these topics emerged in mainstream science and culture.

Here’s the gist: In a near-future Los Angeles, police detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with hunting down rogue replicants — artificial humans that are used for slave labor in off-world colonies. Ecological collapse has devastated the planet, but the evil Tyrell Corporation has found a way to turn a profit by genetically engineering the slave labor needed to colonize other planets.

In this special episode of Bad Science, recorded live at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, host Ethan Edenberg drills into the all-too-real technology behind the film's core storyline. This week's expert guest is Dr. Kathy Wei, bioengineering specialist and postdoc researcher at University of California, Berkeley. Also pitching in this week is the ridiculously prolific comic, writer, and actor Paul Scheer, co-host of the movie podcast How Did This Get Made?

In a loose and wide-ranging discussion, the panel explores various facets of the film, including the future of real artificial intelligence and the ethics of genetic engineering. Lest this all sound too heavy, rest assured that the jokes come in hard and fast, too. But as Dr. Wei reveals, there's some weird science underneath all the sci-fi goofiness.

In one exchange, contemplating the possibilities of genetically engineered children, Scheer asks whether he could program his kids to have raptor tails. Dr. Wei thinks it through, raising some rather complex bioethics issues.

“For example, what if you had lizard DNA put into your kids because you want them to have tails?” she asks “Does that make them not human? What percentage of your genome has to be human? What about people with artificial hearts? Or someone with a transplanted animal organ? Part of them is not human, but we would say that overall they are human.”

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Such concepts had been percolating in the sci-fi underground for years, of course. Scott's film was based on a novel by weird science godfather Philip K. Dick, who liked to stay around 30 years ahead of his time with any given book.

In a later exchange, Dr. Wei speculates on a major plot point in the film. The replicants designed by the Tyrell Corporation have been programmed with limited life spans — a kind of built-in kill switch. Surprisingly, real-world genetic engineers are already working with such ideas.

“When I initially saw the movie, I thought that was very clever of them to incorporate that,” Wei says. “Like with T-cell therapy, we're putting cells that have been manipulated outside the body, then put back into a human. There's always a chance that they will go rogue — that they'll become cancerous themselves or otherwise start attacking the body.”

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One of the attributes that genetic engineers can program into a cell is the ability to turn on and turn off, Wei notes, causing the cell to die at a certain point in its development cycle.

“So if you think there's a problem, the cells will basically die off,” she says. “Or you can imagine building in an element that says, ‘After 30 divisions of the cell, no more.’ ”

Tune into this special live podcast for more details on the science of Blade Runner, including some intriguing speculation on the film's most famous mystery: whether Deckard himself is a replicant. Scheer also proposes a novel theory about the relationship between replicants and Oprah Winfrey. It's oddly persuasive, actually.