Hello Hi There
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 10, 2011
Hello Hi There, part of this year's COIL Festival at P.S. 122, is an effort to apply the ideas of the Turing Test in the world of performance. It is not—at least from my perspective, which includes a lot of experience working with computers and playing with artificial intelligence—a success.
The Turing Test, stated simplistically, is a theoretical way to determine whether a machine is "human" (i.e., can "think"): it consists of a computer at one end of a conversation and a human on the other, and if the human is fooled into believing the computer is also a human, the test is said to have been passed. (This is a gross simplification, of course; here's a resource that goes into more detail.) Alan Turing, the remarkable mathematician and codebreaker who conceived the test, intended it as a basis for AI research rather than something to be practically implemented, but it's such a compelling idea that it has indeed been tried many times over the six decades since it was proposed.
Hello Hi There is essentially a Turing Test for improv performance. Conceiver/director Annie Dorsen (who is best known for her collaboration with Stew, Passing Strange), has created a show in which two computers "appear" on a stage, armed with chatbot software designed by Robby Garner. The software on each computer is started and the pair have a "conversation" which is both projected on screens on stage and "spoken" via voice simulation. The subject of their discussion is the 1971 televised debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, in which the famous American linguist and the famous French philosopher tried to answer the question, "is there such a thing as innate human nature independent of our experiences and external influences?"
We're told before the show proper begins that there are 80 million possible permutations for the programmed conversation to take. The one "selected" by the performer/computers at the show I attended was dull and disappointing. (I wonder how typical it was.) The computers entered loops numerous times, repeated themselves, failed to contextualize each other's questions/answers about half the time, and on the whole never convinced me for one second that they were anything other than mechanical devices; i.e., they absolutely failed the Turing Test.
Worse, Dorsen's direction failed the theatricality test: Hello Hi There really is just a demonstration of a technology (one that, as far as I can tell, isn't ready to be demonstrated). All the nuts and bolts of the thing are showing, so there's no pretense that anything but computers are involved in the performance. While that's instructive for the audience, it's also not terribly exciting to watch; if I spoke this review as I typed it and you watched me do that, you'd be witnessing something about as entertaining as what I witnessed tonight at P.S. 122.
Some audience members laughed at the non-sequitor responses that the computers sometimes came up with, which puzzled me. For me, laughter is a response to intention; and intention was entirely missing from the two computer/actors on stage. There's an exciting brave new world of performance to be explored as this technology improves, and I suspect that programming intention will be a key to at least part of it.