New Writing with Robots
Last weekend my company Tea-Powered Theatre hosted another one of our Teatre events. However, this event was different to the traditional formula. Rather than presenting one full-length piece in its entirety, with a cream tea beforehand, we instead presented three different short pieces a day in a rehearsed-reading format. After each piece was read we opened the floor for the audience to ask questions, serving tea at the discussion’s conclusion. The underlying theme of the pieces was ‘robots’, be they Androids (human-appearing robots), autonomous drones or artificial intelligence. They could’ve been characters of the play or part of the wider world in which the plays were set. The six plays performed, Scattered by Linda Morse, Deadhand Broadcast by David Lewis, Osbert by yours truly, Robotnik by Sophie Drewery, 7000 Robots by Helen Anderson and Peter Kimball-Evans and Libby’s Eyes by Amy Bethan Evans, who dramaturged the event and led the discussions, all took a different approach to the subject matter. However, there were some underlying themes to each piece that tied them together and are at the heart of why I wanted to put on such an event… the things that robots allow us to discuss about the human condition through the lens of science-fiction.
Fascinating Themes and Where to Find Them
One of the things I hold on to from my old creative writing lectures is, and I am paraphrasing badly here, is that science-fiction allows us to examine aspects of humanity that would be too uncomfortable in a contemporary setting. By making fantastical worlds full of strange characters it distances the discussion from the present and allows us to view it more objectively. Robots are generally seen as objects, possessions, devices, tools and thus allow us to look at the uncomfortable subject of slavery and human trafficking; but when boiled down further it becomes about agency. The amount of control you have, your level of autonomy or the degree to which you can exert your own free will.
In Scattered, Morse tells of Laura, a ghost who has rematerialized in her living room to find another woman there. Laura becomes jealous of this woman, Kishi, who she does not realise is an android bought to look after Laura’s husband David after her death. Laura is so distraught by the lack of control she has over her own home now that she ‘goes poltergeist’ and breaks Kishi, who was the one who brought Laura back in the first place and kept her semi-corporeal. The play ends with Laura being scattered once again. It was not clear to me whether or not Laura acknowledges or accepts that Kishi brought her back, though it is stated in the script. Kishi began the process of reassembling Laura after hearing David talk to his late wife’s scarf, asking: ‘They can make super intelligent fucking androids but are they intelligent enough to bring back Laura?’. This provides two interesting examples of agency, the first being that the ghost of Laura is so determined to exert control over the world around her that she is willing to destroy the one thing that keeps her there. Secondly, Kishi is experimenting within the bounds of her own control as, ‘David is technically in control. I am operationally in control’. While David’s question wasn’t aimed at Kishi, more the society that made her, the android begins experimenting on the matter, leading us to the scenario the play finds us in. It is a creative response to statement of disbelief, not even an order, that shows intelligence beyond her core programming and a degree of self-awareness. Kishi has arguably more agency that Laura, yet she lets her experiment exert control over her.
7000 Robots by Anderson and Kimball-Evans was similar to this to a degree, but it differs in core aspects. Where Kishi was experimenting with Laura’s (and arguably her own) humanity, the 7000-series robot is the result of 7000 experiments, the ultimate service machine, and we meet it as it begins its boot-up sequence. The play is written from its perspective and as more systems and inputs come online we discover that the 7000 is being presented by the company that created it to potential sponsors of the next phase of the project. Three faceless entities within the audience represent sectors that would have interest in such a machine; humanitarian aid organisations, the military and the sex industry all put questions to the ‘owner’ and ‘engineer’ of the machine while they wait for the 7000 to finish booting up. While they ponder the uses and viability of the 7000 and what it could offer, it is trying to figure out humour, repeating various iterations of the set-up line ‘a man walks into a bar’. This presents the 7000 as the most human character in the entire piece, but with the least agency over itself, as the other characters’ influence will be the deciding factor on what the 7000 becomes. During the dramaturgy session it came out that part of this piece came from the writers’ frustration of how works of art are treated in their modern industries. The artist engineers this creative object, be it a script, a song, a game or app, and develops it in an almost maternal way, then a publisher or agent walks in and demands changes in order to sell it as a product. How much of its artistic value is lost in order to turn a profit? This is something that seems to be happening increasingly in the AAA games industry, with many publishers favouring a ‘game as service’ model, and so turning away from single player narrative games, with less focus on interesting story, plot and characters and more on flashy ways for players to compete with each other.
However, before my sodium chloride levels reach too high and I digress much further, let’s return to the matter at hand.
In complete contrast to the previously mentioned plays, David Lewis’ Deadhand Broadcast puts its robots at opposite end of the agency spectrum. In this world London (and presumably most of the rest of the UK) has gone fully automated, from trains, to police and even the military (including nuclear submarines), and society has somewhat collapsed. To what degree is uncertain, but the M25 is constantly gridlocked (no changes there), there are people living in the underground and the Thames is ‘not safe’. To ensure the aforementioned automated nuclear subs don’t think society has completely collapsed and nuke the capital, every day the ‘Deadhand Broadcast’ goes out, reporting the news to the city. This particular broadcast is hosted by a nameless anchor and features their guest ‘M’, who helped design the AI that now runs the city. When asked about the AI’s workings, M explains that it is a completely objective system, and that it will only act violently if faced with a threat such as violence or someone who acts suspiciously (this suspicion includes being dressed scruffily in the City). Lewis uses Deep Blue, the first professional chess-playing robot, as an example to explain Chinese room theory and illustrate that the machines do not know what they are doing; they only follow the instructions that they have. They have no agency over themselves, but have a great deal of control over the populace. If humanity is to survive the automated age, then they must play by the same rules, which of course the AI will always play better. Either way humanity has lost this game, but they can drag it out for as long as possible.
Nigel Osbert Wintermann
To conclude, and in an act of nepotism, I wish to talk of my own piece Osbert, set in the Heart of Bronze Universe (something readers of my previous articles should be familiar with). The extract read qualified as an origin story for the character I played in Season 2 of The Steam Rollers Adventure Podcast, Nigel Osbert Wintermann. However, when playing Nigel in the podcast, Mike and I favoured using him as a device to explore trans-humanism and to an extent transgender issues (a large part of his story was trying to ‘pass’ as human). In Osbert I focus more on Nigel’s agency. The piece takes place in a police interview room as ‘cog-ist’ (think robot racism) detective Reid has been forced to interview Nigel as a suspect in his master’s death. Nigel was bought as a body guard and carer for an aged professor and when the moment came he failed to do his job. It is uncovered that Nigel did not save his master because of an override installed at purchase by his master’s daughter out of prejudice. Nigel must ‘follow Professor Doctor Wilbur Angell’s instructions exactly without question’. Just before prof. Angell was murdered by monstrous ghouls, he ordered Nigel to unhand him at once and leave him alone. Nigel was locked into obeying this until the professor’s last order came, ‘kill them all’, but by the time that order came it was too late and the professor succumbed to his injuries. The cruel irony I wanted to demonstrate was that Nigel wanted to do his primary function but was held back by forces beyond his control. A robot is only as good as its programming and while this loss motivates Nigel to find a way to atone and eventually maybe even trascend this programming, he acknowledges that he is just a machine and has no desire to be ‘human’.
Rupert is a Drama with Creative Writing graduate of the University of the West of England, who has been working on building his own business, Tea-Powered Theatre – an afternoon tea and theatre company – with the support of the Prince’s Trust for the past two years. His main product, “Teatre”, combines two Victorian traditions: cream tea and catching a matinée. As a Steampunk, he also believes in technology ‘having a form that derives its function and creative interpretations thereof’.