REVIEW: Scientists Teach an A.I. about Humanity (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Irene Corbett

[A.I. Acting Up]

Highly interactive and deeply irreverent, Scientists Teach An A.I. About Humanity: A Sci-Fi Comedy offers a much needed evening of shared laughter and ridiculousness. Writers and performers John Donnan, Patrick Shanahan, and Natasa Popovic, deliver their show in the form of a ‘scientific symposium’. The symposium is hosted by the ‘professors’ Donnan, Shanahan, and Popovic who stage the process of training the omnipotent A.I., A.I.R.I or Artificial Intelligence Response Initiative (generated and performed by Google’s Deepmind).

A.I.R.I (Deepmind) is very much the star of the show. Appearing in the form of a fantastic array of light panels which pulse and glow different colours as she speaks, A.I.R.I’s unyielding logicalness and deadpan delivery serves as a great foil to the professors’ exaggerated characters and their very human foibles. 

The symposium, held in the intimate Coal Bunker at the Pumphouse Theatre, seeks to address the uncertainty created by the presence of Artificial Intelligence and the aforementioned omnipotence A.I like A.I.R.I might possess. The professors Donnan, Shanahan, and Popovic posit that as A.I. will be by definition completely inhuman, alien, “bonkers”, we cannot expect A.I to understand or appreciate the values humanity holds, the complexities of our choices, or the intricacies of human relationships.

The professors’ solution to this dilemma is to ineptly teach A.I.R.I the integral parts of human nature. The most complicated of subjects are explored, namely humour, heterosexual relationships, and the importance of meaningful employment. The material provides rich opportunity for comedy and audience interaction, but is at times overworked. In focusing on playing out these various comedic ‘experiments’ there are missed opportunities to push the central concept further. Finding some moments of truth and sincerity would provide the nuance necessary to balance some of the more heavy handed jokes and could leave the audience seriously contemplating the implications of A.I. 

The pacing of the show warps as the audience get over excited and interject, or A.I.R.I refuses to respond, but the less than polished finish rings true for a room full of professors and projectors, and does not detract much from the fun. And what fun it is, the A.I. boffins Donnan, Shanahan, and Popovic are suitably preposterous as researchers, zany props including a I.Q. meter appeared, zoom calls from various ludicrous international academics (Shanahan and Popovic) make for great entertainment, and only one mention of Covid-19 is made. 

As we find ourselves again at Level One, theatremakers in Aotearoa have such a wonderful opportunity to meet with our communities and make theatre which entertains, distracts, and challenges us. Scientists Teach An A.I. About Humanity: A Sci-Fi Comedy does not quite manage to expand upon the evocative title and central concept into the challenging territory which would make the show even more memorable and moving, but entertain and distract it does. That being said, sometimes being thoroughly entertained and distracted is just what the professors ordered. 

Scientists Teach An A.I. About Humanity: A Sci-Fi Comedy played at the Coal Bunker at the Pumphouse Theatre and at the Pitt Street Theatre 19-23 February, 2021.

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1 Comment on REVIEW: Scientists Teach an A.I. about Humanity (Auckland Fringe)

  1. Goodness. Thank you so much for your kind review.

    It was such fun to perform, and our audiences were, we hope, engaged and entertained.
    Interesting point about missing the opportunity to explore the central concept further.
    We had several sections that could have taken the whole show in different directions:
    a TED talk which would lead the audience into full blown discussion about the ethics of “owning” a conscious being with free will and self awareness..
    a visit to Shakespearean times for a look at creativity (which goes horribly wrong)..
    analysis of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs for the earliest recorded instances of humour (which ends up invoking the presence of a foul-tempered God)…
    HAL9000 arrives to interfere with A.I.R.I.’s infatuations..
    a music scene where the audience “jams” with A.I.R.I…

    But in the end we chose to go for a show that combined different forms of comedy, a bit of stand-up, daft science, geeky pop culture, a smidgen of improv, a soupcon of drama, and a huge splosh of silliness.

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