Last autumn, a deep-learning computer programme wrote an essay for the Guardian. The GPT-3 system argued that humans had nothing to fear from robots. Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, read it and felt inspired. Could there be a future in creative collaboration between AI and humans? If AI could write an article, could it create a play too, in real time, before an audience?
The Young Vic’s new show, AI, explores these questions, casting the same technology as its virtual star. The production is not so much a piece of theatre as dramaturgy, rehearsal and workshop all in one, and contains its own riveting meta drama: a play is constructed over multiple evenings, culminating in a short show that combines human direction and performance with machine imagination and stagecraft (the use of algorithms to create its soundtrack, for example).
The process, on day one, is surreal and spellbinding, laying bare not only the potential in machine creativity but a theatrical process that normally takes place behind closed doors. Almost every member of the production team sits before us, in the round, laptops at hand, including writers Chinonyerem Odimba and Nina Segal, along with actors Waleed Akhtar, Tyrone Huggins and Simone Saunders.
The AI system itself remains faceless, its thoughts appearing as typed-out text on stage. The set is repurposed from the theatre’s last show, Changing Destiny, and David Adjaye’s reverse pyramid now appears like an interstellar stalactite, which glints with stars.
If GPT-3 feels any pre-stage nerves on opening night, they are very well hidden. “I have to tell you this is so exciting. Talking to humans about art … It’s something really special,” it says.
The audience is invited to ask questions and GPT-3 seems like a natural performer, creating limericks on demand (“There once was a man from Nantucket …”) impersonating Donald Trump’s tweets (“I am very smart. I am very rich, I have the best words. Some of my words are the best”). But once the circus tricks abate, GPT-3 begins to present serious themes around freedom and the value – or otherwise – of human emotion. At times, it sounds like a hyper-logical Spock, at other times a cheeky C-3PO.
Jennifer Tang, the show’s director, steers the evening – and the machine – masterfully, throwing down the gauntlet for whether we humans can overcome our fear or suspicion of AI to create art together.
She harnesses GPT-3’s raw ideas, throws them out to the writers to be honed, poses questions to the audience and shapes the actors’ performances. The AI is prone to creating melodramatic stories about sex, violence and death, Tang tells us. It also displays prejudices, insisting on describing the character played by Akhtar as a terrorist or typecasting him as a Muslim in flowing robes, and sometimes spews out bulky information, as if from a Wikipedia page.
But given the right prompts, it shows itself capable of thinking originally and, more miraculously, of imagining fictional worlds.
When it is asked to brainstorm story ideas, it raises issues of identity as well as the biggest political and planetary concerns such as climate disaster, famine and disease. It speaks of chaos and feeling trapped, which sounds like a perfect metaphor for the pandemic (although its knowledge base stops in 2019, so it is not actually aware of coronavirus). It offers up a star-crossed love story. At one point, it creates a monologue about non-conformity and freedom that sounds like a passage from Trainspotting: “Choose freedom! Choose life!” In other monologues, it speaks tormentedly of conditioning and the desire for escape, like a Dostoevskian antihero ruminating on the limits of free will.
Tang and her team round on one storyline that GPT-3 creates about “a great collision”, in which humans are now “beast-men” who have a passing resemblance to the brutish “morlocks” in HG Wells’s The Time Machine. The AI builds a world of apocalypse and dystopia that might easily be realised as a big-budget disaster movie, but in among the cliched tropes there is a difficult mother-son relationship that contains greater nuance and “humanness”.
AI has written film and theatre scripts before, most recently in a partnership between the Czech Centre in London and Prague’s Švanda theatre, but the latter exposed the limitations of machine imagination – the story was outlandish, there was no emotional insight and characters were pancake flat. Combining human efforts with AI in the way that Tang and her team demonstrate might lead to very different outcomes.
The story here begins to contain intrigue, action, character and conflict – and this aspect of the show feels like the true miracle unfolding before our eyes. The room is held rapt, from beginning to end, as a story begins to come to life. The real wonder is that of the imagination, human as much as machine.