views from the gods

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Theatrical Turing Test
The Hen and Chickens
1st August 2018


Publicity photo for Theatrical Turing Test

Photography provided by Improbotics

I take a personal interest in the development of artificial intelligence, and none too comfortably - with only minor advancement, I reckon a computer could do 80% of my day job, and probably with more patience and courtesy too. It may even make it obsolete altogether if the humans I manage get replaced themselves. As such, I was intrigued to see what stage it's all reached, and the Theatrical Turing Test was the perfect platform for that. Co-presented by two of Improbotics’ three CEOs - Piotr Mirowski (in person) and Kory Mathewson (via video link from Canada, as you do) - the show is a clever concept aiming to provide a humorous, public-friendly taster of just how human-like AI can get.

As it turns out in this case, not very. By means of an introduction with a robot and a couple of improv sessions with human actors (Sarah Davies, Julia Eckhoff, Arfie Mansfield, Katherine Murray-Clarke, Shama Rahman) taking cues via headphones from either the AI or another human for comparison, the entity proves itself to be both limited in repertoire (it only recites movie lines) and slow to respond. But that doesn't matter - the show is there to entertain, not to brag (or scare the living daylights out of lay people). A bit of fun, in other words.

Knowing tech people and having seen how these things develop in a very free-and-easy manner, this show is par for the course - on a scale of "Let's just see what happens" to "Let's follow a strict programme with backups and emergency fillers and ultra-tight parameters", it feels pretty far towards the former. When the video link-up had an initial wobble, there was little response from the desk where Mirowski and Mansfield were sitting, other than to look amused at a laptop screen. Fortunately, we didn’t have to find out what the backup was for this because it settled.

Mirowski, whilst disarmingly pleasant, gave a long introduction which felt stilted and forced at times, with the laughter from the audience being more nervous than heartfelt. Mathewson managed to convey more charisma, despite only appearing on-screen. After the introduction came three improv sessions - one with an actor being fed lines by the AI; the second with lines fed by a human for comparison; and finally the title piece, where one actor was fed by the AI, another by Mathewson on the live link, and three others simply improvising on their own. The audience then voted on which actor they thought was doing which. With a small audience, it was always going to be difficult to generate an enthusiastic response, but Mirowski admirably persevered in his efforts.

However, that issue highlights a wider, more fundamental problem with the show - it occupies an awkward no-man's-land between tech demonstration and theatrical performance. The obvious ways forward are, therefore 'more tech' or 'more theatre' - it cannot stay neutral. If the team goes for the former, it needs to embrace the dry humour of the tech mentality and simply be its natural, understated self, rather than trying to be rabble-rousing cheerleaders - less might just prove to be more. If it goes for the 'more theatre' option, really it needs to be looking at bringing a more outgoing actor forward to lead the presentation, whilst bouncing off Mirowski and Mathewson (and presumably the third CEO, Jenny Elfving at some point?). Either way, the show needs to somehow combine the interesting technology with crisper, more engaging delivery.

The tech behind the show is truly fascinating and gives the production a niche selling point. Theatrical Turing Test is a fun, neat concept with the potential to be modified into something spectacular. We'll certainly be keeping an eye out for those upgrades.

Theatrical Turing Test ran on 1st August 2018 at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highbury and Islington (Victoria, Overground)

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