I and robot in The Uncanny Valley at UNC | Arts
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Sunday, October 13, 2013

I and robot in The Uncanny Valley at UNC

Posted by on Sun, Oct 13, 2013 at 3:28 PM

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Swain Hall
Closed Oct. 13

It was a misty Friday night on UNC campus, and outside of Swain Hall, the smokers drew on electronic cigarettes that glowed a cool futuristic blue instead of a cheery orange. In the intimate stadium seating of Swain’s black box theater, college students earnestly discussed Spinoza, while a woman whose son was studying cybernetics at MIT engaged me in a discussion of the limits of automated care in end-of-life facilities.

Down in the starkly appointed staging area, a heavily slumped figure dressed in rags and a robot in a wheelchair, whose metal arms bared their servos and bundles of cable, sat silently around a black folding table. Without warning, the slumped figure jerked to life and began to speak. We all put our smartphones away and began an inexorable descent into a different, but not so different, virtual reality.

Francesca Talenti, the creator of The Uncanny Valley, is a widely acclaimed filmmaker and animator who teaches media production at UNC. Working with a lab team at the college, Talenti created a robot, programmed with motion and voice capture software, that becomes more and more human over the course of the play, gradually taking on the male actor’s voice, body language and physiognomy through a molded plastic face with rear projections.

The title refers to the theory, most relevant in robotics and animation, that human representations become repulsive rather than comforting when they fall into a narrow range just shy of perfection—the uncanny valley. Talenti’s play uses this novel human and robot dialogue, this attraction and repulsion, to run amok through the historical underpinnings and contemporary ethics of the merger of human minds with artificial intelligences, avatars and reproductions.

Most of the action centers on a dialogue between a young man named Edwin and the robot, Dummy, who does in fact resemble a crash test dummy. The fast-moving script bursts at the seams with disquisitions on mirror neurons, Socrates, stem cell research, Leonardo Da Vinci, Google Glass, the Gutenberg press, the 2045 Initiative, biosynthetic haptic devices and points outlying. It’s dense with allusions to the Greek Fates, Alice in Wonderland, Faust; rippling with concerns about identity theft and digital privacy and technological replications of reality. It’s often as if My Dinner with Andre had been co-written by Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson, and the story emerges in fits and starts from the torrent of big ideas. Hard to follow at first, it gains clarity and emotional weight as it plunges toward an unexpectedly moving conclusion, plumbing the timeless emotional depths below all the bleeding-edge data.

We gradually piece together that Edwin, a recent college graduate who has been charged with fraud thanks to a malicious online doppelganger, has engaged himself in a study with a mysterious professor who promises to repair his employability. All he has to do is gradually upload his mind into Dummy, which he achieves by putting on a scalp massager and sniffing what looks like a vial of nail polish. (As I said, the play is confusing at first.) As Dummy mirrors Edwin more and more, his cartoonish face grows more lifelike, his gestures more expressive. He takes on Edwin’s voice and, in the second act, his clothes, finally explaining why the pajama pants the actor wore all through Act 1 were so absurdly oversized.

Edwin is played as a likeable ham by Griffen Bernhard, who occasionally acts like he’s in an ‘80s family sitcom rather than a work of experimental theater, but whose couple of slight timing mishaps in interacting with Dummy only emphasized how skillfully he kept to the unusually rigid tempo overall. Atropos, the custodian who pops in from time to time to furnish Greek chorus warnings, robot malfunction repairs and very broad comic relief, is played by Katja Hill, who is gamely slapstick in a very odd role. Atropos rides around in a mop bucket, looks like a Russian peasant and talks like a Dukes of Hazzard extra who’s read excessive amounts of Beckett and Baudrillard. The character adds to the early sense of mayhem, but gradually, a deeper rhythm coalesces, with talky set pieces punctuated by potent dreamy sequences where Dummy downloads another layer of Edwin’s humanity.

The power of the theatrical imagery increases as the play progresses, most pressingly in these dream sequences, where the robot’s face flashes alien patterns in the dark, in concert with Talenti’s striking videos projected large behind the scene and beautifully sinister modern music performed by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. The nature of Dummy’s interrogation changes; he wants Edwin to tell him about sex, and the sea. A decisive turn, both funny and poignant, comes when Dummy adopts a cat, KK, and embarks on a long encomium to his pet in a pitch-corrected voice familiar from so much contemporary pop music. The eyes of the cat loom on the scrim behind the actors now, where Edwin’s idyllic memories his mother used to be. The robot is learning to love, which is to say, to be human—but then, is the inverse also true?

Edwin gets everything he wanted and more, which of course comes with a betrayal, and a price. Dummy’s final soliloquy as he disconnects himself is poetic and genuinely arresting, the mounting pressure of the narrative arc coming to rest in a slow and profound place. I had ceased to notice how much I had come to implicitly believe in the robot's humanity, and in his rapport with Edwin, until it flickered out again, leaving behind a machined coldness that somehow retained the tragic vestige of a soul. That’s no small feat, to make a robot so beautiful and sad. Dummy comes to rest in a posture much like a medieval saint in an illuminated manuscript, two fingers frozen in an eternal genuflection. The classical image lingers in the mind alongside a very contemporary conundrum. What is the self, this weird irreducible scintilla, or just a collection of data in a shell we are quickly learning to replace? As artificial intelligence and biosynthetic avatars hurtle toward their event horizon, the question feels less and less academic all the time.

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