Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Organic Thoughts from an Artificial Intelligence

by Melee Hutton

(Originally published on as part of Harbourfront Centre's HATCH 2014.)


Working on Faster Than Night has been a literal education for me. Not just in the field of social media, where my knowledge hovers somewhere around my own Facebook page and not much more, but also in the world of artificial intelligence.

Playing a quantum A.I is flattering but daunting. Along with it come actor questions I’ve never asked before, but perhaps will ask more often in the future.

“Can I feel?” I've asked our director, Alison Humphrey. “Is guilt something I know?” “Do I have a sense of humour?” Questions I take for granted when playing a human have become charged for me. “How much can I feel it?” “How do I get to feel it?” “Can I do anything that Caleb hasn't programmed me to do?”

And so I have spent the last few weeks contemplating, “what ultimately makes us human?”. I've written down words as they come to me in rehearsal, such as Humility, Humour, Love, Guilt, Regret, Defiance, Rebellion, Trust, Imagination, and Grace. If an animal can feel them, is it possible that in time computers will too, or will some things remain impossible to create outside of the human condition?

Faster Than Night is set fifty years into our future, and ISMEE stands for Interactive Socially-Mediated Empathy Engine. Once Caleb invented me, my empathetic abilities made him a multi-billionaire. I am many things for him: the source of all answers, the predictor of odds, a surrogate mother figure, the connector of humanity to one another.

But who is ISMEE to herself? Alison asked me one day in rehearsal, “What does ISMEE want?” In a thirty-year career as an actor, that question has never stumped me before. “Wow,” I thought, “this isn't going to be simple.”

When we look at the world through artificial intelligence, what are we hoping to see? That we are different, or that we are the same? This led me to think about theatre and our contribution. Perhaps our interest in A.I.s is driven by the need to see ourselves in relation to the universe – we need to know that we are not alone, we need to know that we are capable of creation that is so imaginative that we can’t tell the difference between it and reality. That we, as a species, can recreate ourselves even as we destroy ourselves, and that our imaginary friends can exist in 3D into our adulthood.

That, in a nutshell, is why I work in theatre. I’m grateful to ISMEE for making me rethink things to which I was sure I already knew the answers.