How one machine becomes human in ‘Uncanny Valley’ at O’Neill Theatre
Susan Denaker and Jacob Sidney star in ICT’s production of “Uncanny Valley.” Photo by Tracey Roman.
Source: Richard Guzman
International City Theatre is continuing its season of thought-provoking but entertaining shows with a play that asks very deep questions about what it means to be human.
The Long Beach company will present the Los Angeles premiere of Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley,” a play about artificial intelligence that offers a somewhat alarming but still humorous look at what could be ahead for humanity.
“It’s relevant and something we need to be thinking about,” said caryn desai, ICT’s artistic director and producer who is directing the play that starts Friday and runs through May 7. There are two preview performances Wednesday and Thursday.
“Although the story is humorous and touching there’s so much to think about and it’s so timely right now because they’re making such progress in this field and so quickly,” desai said.
The story is set in the not so distant future when a neuroscientist named Claire creates a “non-biological” being named Julian.
The robot is meant to be a vessel for an old rich man who is terminally ill but not ready to die just yet, so instead he has paid millions to have his consciousness downloaded into Julian.
Before developing his assigned human consciousness, Julian starts off as just a talking head. He eventually receives a torso, arms and legs while Claire tries to teach him what it means to be human before the download takes place.
At first the lessons begin with simple things like shaking hands before they move on to music and even trying to understand humor.
“They’re kind of dancing around the process of what is the difference between being a machine and being human and the lines begin to get blurred because they start talking about things like what it means to be conscious,” said Susan Denaker, who takes on the role of Claire.
The play also wonders just what kind of human Julian will eventually become.
“One of the very interesting things the play deals with is that there are kind of combinations,” said Jacob Sidney, who portrays Julian in the production.
Sidney explains that there are essentially three Julians in the play; one is the machine who can talk and interact before the human consciousness has been downloaded, the second is the consciousness of the old man and the other is something new that’s somewhere in between.
“He has the personality and the memories of the old man Julian but he also has the capacity to continue to learn and grow,” Sidney said.
The play premiered in New York in 2014 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. The premiere was followed by productions at San Diego Repertory Theatre, InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia and Capital Stage in Sacramento.
Gibbons was inspired to write the play after seeing a National Geographic article and photo of a sentient robot named Bina48, created by the LifeNaut Project. The machine has been called one of the world’s most advanced social robots since it can interact with people by using face and voice recognition technology.
“LifeNaut is investigating the possibility of downloading human consciousness into an artificial body as a means of extending our lifespan,” Gibbons said in a statement provided by ICT. “Bina is basically a head and shoulders sitting on a table. I was really haunted by that photo.”
That reaction lead to the title of the play, which refers to a term used when people become uncomfortable when a machine starts looking too human.
“Humans can deal with robots that are mechanical, as soon as they become too human looking there’s this uncomfortable creepy feeling you get,” desai said.