The Algorithm Made Me Do it!

Last Thursday, one of our Live Arts Bard artists-in-residence, Annie Dorsen, gave us a behind-the-scenes view of her latest production: False Peach. The performance explores the notion of consciousness, agency, and language through an algorithmic production of Hamlet. Although still in its infancy, the play will use automated dialogue and lighting to recreate the famous play in an experimental fashion. I had the chance to attend her presentation of her piece Hello, Hi There at AAAI-2012 in Toronto this past summer. Hello, Hi There will be performed at Bard in November.

The moral agency of robots, or software-bots, has been a hot topic in both philosophy and robotics lately. And from my perspective, the most interesting part of Annie’s work, is this notion of agency or control. Who is responsible for the software’s actions? — whether it be drones or drama. In some ways, the creators of the play relinquish control of the production to the algorithms. They hit start at the beginning of the performance, and magic happens. Every night is a different, unpredictable performance. Random number generators, equations, and conditionals guide and mis-guide the narrative. But in an important sense, this type of production is one of the most controlled plays ever. Everything is predetermined, and nothing is left to human improvisation. There is no pesky spotlight operator to miss her cue or actors to make a slightly late entrance or improvise the delivery of a line. And not only is it deterministic and in some ways eternal, but that stems from a human encoding this knowledge in a computer program. It isn’t eternal because it’s a machine, it’s eternal because the play is formally encoded.

I asked Annie a question relating to this notion of control and she had a great response about this work truly investigating the notion of collaboration. Collaboration between humans, and collaboration with machines. By formalizing the dramatic decisions in code, a very systematic exploration of collaboration and decision-making is possible. A very exciting approach to exploring agency, and I look forward to the final production next year.

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