Last night, as reported by the New York Times, the IBM computer, nicknamed Watson, defeated the two best human contestants on the popular trivia TV game show, Jeopardy. This was the third of three games in which the computer did progressively better throughout, not only at the naturally algorithmic gameplay and buzzer anticipation, but also in its understanding of complex and even ironic wordplay.
As someone interested in artificial intelligence from a theatrical perspective, let me just say, I’m in love.
While I do not claim to know the inner workings of such processes, I’ve worked on enough creative projects with robots and computer agents to appreciate how advanced this level of linguistic sensitivity and language processing is. Although Watson occasionally made some missteps in answers, its overall performance and negotiation of language was both superb and fascinating to watch.
It will, of course, be many years, even decades, before such a technology filters its way down to things like theatre and such, but I’m very much looking forward to this future. Does this mean, however, that performance itself will be outsourced to intelligent machines. Undoubtedly, yes. Well, somewhat, though not I suspect entirely.
I imagine that theatre will continue down its current road in which it becomes an increasingly rarified entertainment for a relatively slim, but stable segment of the population, at least in the US. I have no doubt that performing robots will show up on stages, but primarily as novelty items. I don’t think they represent any additional competition to Actor’s Equity; they’ve got enough there anyway.
But while this technology poses little threat to actors, I think is likely poses a significant threat to designers and technicians. Once these computer systems come down in price, they will allow a few artists to do a great deal more. This ‘more’ is things current done by humans, such as stage managing a show and running sound a lights. With language recognition, particularly from a script that doesn’t change a great deal (unlike the constant changing in a show like jeopardy), a computer could easily recognize verbal cues that would trigger lights, sound effects, and rigging. Overseen by only one or two humans, and you’ve got a theatre that looks an awful lot like Edward Gordon Craig’s vision of a theatre completely controlled by a single artist.
I think the actors will be able to keep their jobs for a while; if I were a designer – one without a degree in computer science – I’d be worried.