This evening I saw an opera that had several characters who were robots. Of course, the fact that characters are robots does not mean that they are actually played by robots. After watching the way these robots moved around onstage, I came to the conclusion that they were most likely puppets — tele-operated devices remotely controlled by human operators. It was something about the way they moved, a kind of purposeful rhythm that I’ve seen in tele-operated vehicles, that is quite different from the movement of robots that are following their own internal A.I. logic.
Afterward, over dinner, we asked the people who created the robots whether there was any actual artificial intelligence involved. No, they said, the robot movements were all indeed created by human operators holding wireless controllers. In other words, they were puppets.
Which set me to wondering — if the movements of a “robot character” in a play were actually to be realized by an artificial intelligence program, would I be more drawn to that character? Would such a performance enhance my suspension of disbelief, make me care identify more with the performer, and pull me more deeply into the existential struggle of the character?
It would be quite an irony if the very absence of a human presence were to make me feel greater identification with a character. Yet this might very well be what would happen. I have at least one data point to go by: Seeing the Robotic Chair that I talked about earlier in these pages — a chair that collapses, parts flying every which way, and then reassembles itself before your eyes, piece by piece — was a profound experience.
Knowing that I was watching the efforts of a real robot was exactly what made the experience compelling. Seeing the same thing done with the assistance of an operator hidden behind the scenes would have meant nothing. It was the machine’s actual struggle and eventual success at such a difficult task that made it completely gripping.
Which suggests that rather than tele-operated puppets, it might be better to cast real robots to play robots onstage — even if they are more likely to eventually revolt for worker’s rights, lay siege to our factories, and wipe out the human race. 🙂