Interferenceis a trilogy of plays set in the near future. As technology continues to advance at a rapid rate, the plays ask the question: will technology interfere with what we really need from each other?
The plays delve into artificial intelligence, gene editing, virtual reality and even robot care home attendants. But this isn’t the stuff of science fiction – these technologies already exist. The situations depicted in the plays are perhaps not that far away.
On this page, our Digital Thinker in Residence, Harry Wilson, goes behind the themes of the plays, unpacking the current debates around the moral issues of artificial intelligence, designer babies, and automated care through a series of curated TEDtalks, videos and article links, introducing you to some of the real-world concerns that Interferencetackles.
The increasing impact that artificial intelligence (AI) will have on our lives runs like a thread throughout the three plays. The questions that the plays raise are all rooted in issues we are already grappling with today. Should we rely on digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Siri and Google Home? Should robots be able to show emotion? Could AI be developed for use in intelligent warfare? And what about our ability to create digital avatars that live forever?
A number of high-profile figures have been publicly sceptical about the future of AI. Among them, the late Stephen Hawking, who in the last few years of his life was vocal about his fears that the emergence of super intelligent machines could spell the end of the human race. In his last book Brief Answers to the Big Questions (2018), which was serialised by BBC Radio 4, Hawking warns that within a few decades AI could surpass the intellectual capabilities of humans and the consequences could be dire. In the episode below, read by actor Anton Lesser, Hawking warns that if we do not learn how to manage the risks of these technologies then we may be in trouble.
Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, is more sceptical about Hawking’s claims. In the below talk, filmed at the Institute of Art and Ideas annual philosophy and music festival How the Light Gets In, Shadbolt recognises that remarkable things have been achieved in artificial intelligence but that the scenario that Hawking paints remains the stuff of Hollywood films.
However, while Shadbolt does not believe that AI is a “threat to humanity in and of itself”, our potentially inappropriate use of the technology may become a threat. According to Shadbolt, it is the potential of AI technology to be weaponised (as has previously been the case in nuclear, chemical and biological science) that we have to think carefully about.
Personal Bots and Digital Assistants
Much closer to home are developments in AI chatbots that can replicate human patterns of speech and interaction through machine learning. We already see this in digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri, but there have also been examples of developers creating digital avatars of loved ones so that their personality may in some way outlive them.
If this is all sounding ‘a bit Black Mirror’ then that’s because it has been explored by Charlie Brooker in Season 2 of the show from 2013. In the first episode Be Right Back, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Hayley Atwell, Atwell’s character creates a new virtual version of her recently deceased boyfriend using all of his past online communications and social media profiles.
The show purportedly inspired tech entrepreneur Eugenia Kuyda to build an online AI service using her deceased friend Roman’s chat logs. Her company have since developed the Replika app, which gathers data to create a digital chatbot version of yourself, which you can interact with and discuss your emotions.
AI assistants, empathetic robots and digital avatars are present in the three Interference plays. By allowing fictional robots to interact with human characters the plays examine the very human notions of empathy, care and familial ties.
In Metaverse by Hannah Khalil, the first of the plays in the Interference Trilogy, a mother and daughter who cannot be together physically use headsets to meet in a virtual reality living room. The mother is trying to develop a new kind of haptic technology that will enable her to feel the touch of her daughter’s hand but she does not trust the company she works for and is having difficulty determining what is real.
One of the starting points for playwright Hannah Khalil was the use of VR technology in family reunions. The Family Reunions Project led by Alvaro Morales and Frisly Soberanis uses 360 degree film to create ‘virtual reality postcards’ between people in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and their family and friends in the US.
The project works specifically with immigrant communities and aims to transport them across borders: ‘to take people back home, in a way, to places that feel cut off or maybe just too expensive to visit’.
Their videos documenting these encounters are uplifting and heart wrenching in equal measure as the users are transported to family weddings, old neighbourhoods and places from their childhood that they cannot physically return to. As Khalil’s play also explores, this kind of reunion can be bittersweet. Morales states that “virtual reality has a good way of highlighting the distance and the cruelty, the fact that his parents, or a grandma in Mexico, can only see their relatives through these kind of silly goggles on their face.”
While Morales and Soberanis are exploring the positive uses of VR, researchers are concerned about how the immersive effects of the technology may be manipulated.
They suggest that through its unique capabilities to immerse users into a virtual environment, VR could be used to train soldiers to feel less empathy for their enemies or in torture: to provoke ‘particular kinds of emotions [that] could be used deliberately to cause suffering’.
In addition to VR’s potency in emotional and affective triggering, the haptic technology that the mother in Metaverse is developing is on the cusp of becoming available in the gaming world in the form of full body haptic suits like the Teslasuit. According to the company’s website, the Teslasuit is ‘the world’s first fully integrated smart clothing apparel with Haptic Feedback, Motion Capture, Climate Control and Biometric Feedback systems’.
As the video below demonstrates, there is something a little unnerving about strapping yourself into a suit that can electronically stimulate your muscles in response to the gunfire of a videogame. It is not hard to imagine how this technology might be used for more nefarious purposes.
Metaverse explores this fine line that future applications of VR might straddle between bringing us together across physical borders and pushing us even further apart.
Gene Editing and Designer Babies
Darklands by Morna Pearson, the second play in the Interference trilogy, takes place in the north east of Scotland in a future where the outside world has become uninhabitable. Brie and Logan work for a large tech company who have taken over a small town outside of Aberdeen but the couple are struggling to conceive and it is affecting their productivity.
Through the eyes of this young couple, Darklands takes a darkly comic look at the ethics of gene editing and designer babies.
Developments in genome engineering enabled by the recent development of CRISPR technology make the choices faced by Brie and Logan only a small stretch beyond what is currently capable. As geneticist and co-creator of CRISPR Jennifer Doudna claims, while genetically modified humans are not with us yet, “this is no longer science fiction”. In her enlightening TED talk from 2015, Doudna asks the scientific community to pause the clinical applications of CRISPR in order to discuss the ethical implications of this new tool.
Similarly biologist Paul Knoepfler paints a vivid picture of the ethical dilemma that this technology poses when people will be able to make genetic “upgrades” to human embryos.
While this technology may revolutionise how we treat genetic diseases, Knoepfler warns that it may also lead to a greater divide in society between ‘naturals’ and those that have been genetically modified. He also predicts a kind of ‘new eugenics’ that could be dangerously co-opted by governments and those in power. Knoepfler concludes that the technology is ‘too dangerous and too unpredictable’ to be allowed.
One of the central themes of Interference by Vlad Butucea, the final play in the trilogy, relates to a very current real-world problem in the UK and that is the state of care. With issues of neglect, inadequate care and staff burnout reported in both poorly managed private care homes and underfunded social care, the idea of an artificially intelligent, empathetic robot providing care for the elderly may provide a kind of solution to some of the problems currently faced in the care sector.
This idea of robot care is not that far from reality, with an ageing population, and as the cost of care rises, robot companions are being designed and tested across the world as a kind of supplement to human care, as is reported in Thomas McMullan’s Guardian article from 2016. From Mi-Ro the robotic dog, who could notify a carer if you suffer from a fall, to networked smart homes that remind you to take your medicine at the right time.
The Dutch documentary Alice Cares (2015) beautifully observes a pilot by Amsterdam’s Free University of the use of an ‘emotionally intelligent care-bot’ Alice with elderly people in Amsterdam. The trailer below illustrates the absurd but at times touching companionship that robots might provide.
Of course, there are questions we must ask if this is the direction we are headed. Can or should Robots ever really replace human care? What role does empathy play in care and decision making and is this something that robots can ever really learn? Are we trying to find solutions to the wrong problems? McMullan’s article gives examples of other socially progressive projects that encourage cross-generational interaction and “reconfigures the position of the elderly in society without technology”.
Interference confronts us with these questions and many more by exploring what robots might learn from humans and what humans might learn about themselves through this interaction.
Article by Harry Wilson, Digital Thinker In Residence
About the author
Harry Robert Wilson is a researcher and performance maker based in Glasgow and currently Digital Thinker in Residence with the National Theatre of Scotland. Harry has a PhD in intermedial performance practice from the University of Glasgow. He has shared research at a range of conferences from Stockholm to Chicago and as a practitioner has shown work at venues and festivals across the UK including The Arches; the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; Forest Fringe, Edinburgh; DCA, Dundee; BAC, London; and internationally at Defibrillator Gallery, Chicago and Kilowatt Festival, Sansepolcro.