Friday, February 8, 2013

Signs of (artificial) intelligent life

 A scene from I, Worker (Photo: Osaka University & Eager Co. Ltd.)
This weekend, Japan Society presents Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University Robot Theater Project in a haunting pair of one-act plays written and directed by Seinendan founder Oriza Hirata. Hirata's plays were developed in collaboration with noted robotics researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University. Dr. Ishiguro's work posits a future for useful human-robot coexistence and interaction. The plays--Sayonara (2010) and I, Worker (2008)--feature performances by robots and androids as well as human actors. Guess who ends up making the stronger impact?

Meet, for example, Geminoid F, which made its theatrical debut in Sayonara. This "female type tele-operated android...resembles the person it was originally modeled after," we learn from the android's bio in the program. Indeed, Geminoid F looks precisely like a youngish, well-bred brunette, her modest black clothing stylishly accented with high-heel black suede bootlets. Now check this out: "Geminoid F is equipped with 12 motorized actuators powered by air pressure, which allows it to mimic human facial expressions."

Delicate of features, demure of expression, Geminoid F portrays an android acquired by a man to provide poetic talk therapy for his terminally-ill daughter. The two characters--therapist and client--sit across from each other in a spare, black-and-white set. Geminoid F, hands folded in its lap, might make a minute turn or inclination of its head or convincingly blink its eyelids, but it stays put. Although the daughter is given more movement range and even rises from her chair on occasion, you might find yourself assigning more human-type reality to the artificial intelligence gazing at its client and reciting tankas.

Client and therapist quietly converse and trade tankas in several languages. The dialogue seems crafted to allow for spaciousness--and, perhaps, in a practical sense, time for the human actor to insert her lines between those of the android. It's not clear whether the emergence of Geminoid F's words is manually prompted or if those lines have been pre-recorded, but the latter seems the more likely case.

Sayonara takes a spell-breaking turn at one point, which I won't reveal here. Still, it leaves a viewer enchanted and wondering what brave new world we face when a machine designed to alleviate loneliness can effectively mimic compassion and poetic wisdom.

From the start, I, Worker brings a charming, gentle humor to the same question. Here, the attendant robots--Takeo and Momoko--are the household help for an amiable young Japanese couple. (Momoko is said to be a really good cook, and it looks like her human clients are chowing down on slices of pizza. Yum, yum.) Cute and cartoony--and far more conventionally AI-looking than Geminoid F--the pair of robots verbally express and physically exhibit sensitivity of thought and feelings. (Momoko: "The hardest thing for robots used to be holding an uncooked egg. Now, we can hold a human baby.") With prefabricated but, nevertheless, subtle movements, they show wit, worry, sadness, guilt, bashfulness and empathy. Clearly, we will need to think less about the possibility of losing our jobs to an army of mechanized workers and more about the chance that, one day, they might better us at connecting and loving.

We're expecting a fairly rough storm, but if the weather eases up, consider taking a chance to see these two unforgettable plays. Remaining shows are Friday, February 8 and Saturday, February 9, both at 7:30 PM. Running time is 75 minutes with a brief intermission.

Ticket information

Japan Society
344 East 47th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues), Manhattan


Upcoming stops on this production's tour

Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Live Arts, February 15-16
Burlington, VT: Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, February 21-22
Toronto, Canada: Canadian Stage, February 26–March 2
Pittsburgh, PA: Andy Warhol Museum, March 8-9

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