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Can a robot write a play? This is the question that Tomáš Studeník and David Košťák asked themselves when they employed the Artificial Intelligence programme GPT2 to write AI: When a Robot Writes a Play for them. We all know AI to be the mysterious technology that will one day take over the world but never before has it been used to create spectacle.
The short answer to the question is: no. A robot cannot write a play – yet – as the creators admit. A robot can write dialogue (preferably with a maximum of two characters) and it can formulate coherent but simple statements, questions and responses. And that is exactly, what Prague’s Švanda Theatre used as material for AI: When a Robot writes a Play.
Entirely created from dialogue that GPT2 generated, director Daniel Hrbek took on the challenge of making it into a 60-minute-long performance which follows the robot Troy (Jacob Erftemeijer) in his discovery of humankind. Troy – who is fully aware that he is in fact a robot – is not like any AI. He can feel emotions and has the ability to engage in relationships with humans. He alarmingly states that if he dies, there are only robots left.
AI: When a Robot Writes a Play does not have a consistent storyline as such. It follows Troy’s journey in his binary self, as he encounters the archetypes of humanity in the form of quirky characters. He saves a life by hugging someone to life, tries to help an unemployed man, attempts to have sex with ‘a masseuse’ and in the end even manages to find a girlfriend. The themes of sex and violence reappear in every scene and in every scene, Troy invents himself and his storyline a bit more. Starting out as a robot who wants a hug, he later claims to be an actor with a background in clowning and lets us in on the secret that he is afraid of humans.
AI: When a Robot Writes a Play employs all the aspects one thinks of when talking about artificial intelligence: a dark stage with artificial fluorescent lights, an all-encompassing white circle representing Troy in his robot form, and a main character which moves like a robot and speaks with as much intonation as an Alexa, Siri or Cortana do.
Where the scenery and the main characters are as robotic as one can imagine, the secondary characters can be considered nearly human. Their speech pattern is simple, and the conversation are not always logical, but the emotions, fears and beliefs are certainly inspired by humankind. Mundane worries such as finding a job, wanting to be happy, fearing death and lusting for touch play a big part in the AI’s script. What helps the human-factor are the heightened performances from the actors and the way they embrace the stoic language, having memorised the AI’s dialogue word for word.
The creators were inspired by that fact that exactly 100 years ago the word robot was invented. Not by a scientist, as one might expect, but for the Czech play R.U.R. by Karel and Josef Čapek. It is only fitting that its 100-year anniversary is in the form of a play. However, the play would be better titled: ‘Can a robot write a play?’ because, after all, a play is more than just a string of dialogue. AI has not managed to creatively envision a coherent storyline played out by humans on a stage – yet. The play is experimental, strangely fascinating and gives a good insight into our relationship with AI. It is performed in Czech with English subtitles.
AI: When a Robot Writes A Play played online on 26 February 2021. For more information visit The Czech Centre’s website.