Robots can deliver room service, conduct funeral ceremonies and lead workouts for the elderly. But can they tell a joke?
Edmonton audiences can find out, starting next weekend, when local improv artists go head-to-head with artificial intelligence to see who is funnier. Called Improbotics, the show kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at Rapid Fire Theatre (located within the Citadel Theatre at 9828 101A Ave.) and runs Saturday nights from Jan. 12 until Feb. 2.
The event is the brainchild of local improv artist and University of Alberta computer science PhD student Kory Mathewson, who has been performing improv for 15 years but began to connect theatre and artificial intelligence about three years ago as part of an improv group known as HumanMachine. (You may have enjoyed his show at the 2018 Edmonton International Fringe Festival.)
HumanMachine consists of Mathewson, a colleague named Piotr Mirowski (an artificial intelligence researcher in London, England, who will not be at the upcoming Edmonton shows) and a piece of equipment known as A.L.Ex, which stands for Artificial Language Experiment — a computer system that can do speech recognition, improvised dialogue and voice synthesis.
It is A.L.Ex who delivers the artificial intelligence lines in Improbotics, based on its memory of lines programmed into the system from more than 100,000 films. When A.L.Ex is prompted with an audience-generated improv cue, the computer system uses a tool called a neural network to analyze similar conversations in its database and come up with its own, unique response.
In some ways, Improbotics is a regular improv show, with crazy-brave artists bounding about the stage, acting out scenarios suggested by the audience. But this show is also different in that it “celebrates and embraces modern technology,” says Mathewson. “In improv, you are trained to do the most obvious thing, and to connect ideas. This came from trying to connect the improv world and the science world that I am a part of.”
Mathewson, Mirowski and A.L.Ex have toured the globe with their award-winning show, and have delivered lectures on technology and theatre at international universities. And while improv can appear terrifying, even if you’re not going up against a machine featuring 100,000 movies, it’s actually not, Mathewson says.
“It’s amazing how good most people are at it. It’s just having an imagination and being willing to share that, and to just go there with other people.”
Audience members at Improbotics will see two performers on stage, wearing headphones. When the audience suggests, in classic improv fashion, a scenario they’d like to see performed on stage (such as “day care in a butcher shop”), that information is quickly fed into the Improbotic computer, which generates responses to get the action going among other improvisers on stage. (“Is that a kidney in the water table?”) Those responses are rapidly fed to one performer via an earpiece, and the fun begins.
Meanwhile, the mere mortal on stage (acting only on his own initiative and with admittedly limited brainpower) also produces a response to initiate the skit. Will the human performers appear sluggish in that sloppy, bi-pedal way when compared to the high-tech Improbotic creature? Will the entire evening disintegrate in a humiliating scenario reminiscent of Deep Blue and Kasparov? And will that, in itself, prove amusing?
Mathewson hopes the latter statement, at least, proves true.
“It will look and feel like an improv show and if you didn’t understand what A.I. stood for, it would still be an enjoyable show,” he says. “There is nothing that is going to go over your head.”
There is, however, a test. The audience will be asked to guess which lines are generated by artificial intelligence, and which by a person.
A.L.Ex sounds intriguingly futuristic, but it’s really just a variation on the time-honoured tradition of improv, which sees actors put themselves in uncomfortable positions and come out on top.
“People love watching other people just barely make it out all right,” says Mathewson. “They love watching the tightrope walker just make it to the other side. They love watching the person jumping through the flaming ring, but their coat is on fire.”
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