Theatre review*: Rosetta Code
Performed and produced by Improbotics
Before I start this review, it might be a good time to make an honest confession: I am a bit frightened of robots. And when I say a bit frightened I actually mean kind of terrified, to be honest. I don’t think I know the actual reason behind that fear, but I do know its origins: having for the first time seen and (more importantly) heard Kraftwerk’s video for The Robots as a child I was left absolutely petrified. The chilling, robotic voice in that song remained one of my biggest fears for years to come. The first step towards confronting that fear was actually going to see Kraftwerk during their 3-D tour, and that went pretty well. So when I saw that Improbotics would be doing their Rosetta Code performance at this year’s Voila! Europe festival, and that this would include robots, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to challenge, and perhaps conquer my fear once and for all. (For, in all honesty, despite technology seemingly moving forward at the speed of light, for some unknown reason — perhaps researchers are by nature simply more courageous than me — robotic voices seem not to have moved an inch in tone and the scary metal cling, from where they were during my childhood.)
You can probably imagine me being a little reluctant to get myself into the auditorium at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix, where Improbotics were scheduled to perform last Sunday. The stage was set, with some laptops, lots of entangled cables (to a less tech-savvy eye, to be honest — not a good sign), a screen, a (musical) keyboard and — to my surprise — a pretty cutesy looking, tiny robot, all in place. Inevitably, some Kraftwerk music opened the show. (Proud to say I didn’t even shudder at that metallic voice!) However, once Piotr Mirowski walked out on stage, announcing the show’s concept, it became pretty clear that there would be no fear-conquering going on that night. Because, Improbotics, the improv theatre group behind Rosetta Code, use technology and robotics in a way that has absolutely nothing menacing about it. Quite to the contrary, what started as a potentially daunting evening (in my mind at least), ended up being one of light entertainment, sprinkled with some good humour and some sophisticated technology used to a less sophisticated, but definitely charming, purpose.
Rosetta Code is a show based on the idea that communication which involves different languages is quite daunting, but could, perhaps, be improved, or — just as likely — made worse by the use of AI technology, whichever turns out to be true on the night in question. The show is largely improvised: 9 actors on stage perform various unscripted scenes (all, in the beginning, speaking in a different foreign language, with the action gradually switching to English as the performance progresses), partially based on instructions that are randomly provided by members of the audience. The audience gets to choose, for instance, where the characters are, what they are doing or simply pick out a word that serves as an underlying motif for the scene to be acted.
The first thing the group does is make the audience collectively discard the broad assumption that humans don’t really need help communicating, through a simple game of Chinese whispers: yes, to no surprise, in a foreign language, information doesn’t travel too far too successfully. They then go through a couple of scenes in which the actors try (to a humorous result) to do different improvised scenarios, each of them speaking in a different language, without understanding what the other one is saying. (And when the audience chooses a keyword such as fiance, which leads to a lovely exchange in Swedish and Arabic in which nobody knows what is going on, it becomes obvious pretty soon that some help, indeed, would not hurt.)
That’s when technology comes to the rescue. Well, sort of… We start off with the actors performing scenes during which the translations are typed out directly on the big screen behind them as they speak, allowing the audience to partially follow the conversations (which are mostly awkward and funny, courtesy of the AI which doesn’t really understand it all, to say the least). Later on, the scenes evolve to more directly involve a person (or persons) and the AI itself. The AI is first featured in the background of things — providing translations or coming up with full dialogue sentences delivered to the actors via a headset, which they then act out on stage — and later at the forefront, with the above mentioned, absolutely non-scary robot taking center stage, teamed up with a human actor for some one–on–one improvisation. Lastly, we participate in a demonstration of an actual Turing Test on stage: the actors improvise a joint project, with one of them being fed their lines by the AI through the earpiece. In the end, the audience is left with the task of guessing who it was. (Spoiler, we guessed!)
While the technology behind the translations and the lines directly provided by the AI is undoubtedly quite sophisticated (Mirowski holds a PhD in computer science, and he did give us a brief walk through which — very simplified — comes down to large data sets and a lot of machine learning based on neural networks), the humorous side of the show relies heavily on the fact that in exchanges where the AI gets to decide on (some of) the lines, there will inevitably be blunders and some pretty random conversations going on. And yes, there were plenty on Sunday night. (A brilliant scene which involves two men acting as if trying to adopt a baby while one of them apparently lacks the basic understanding of human biology and family relations springs to mind, although it is safe to say it would not be as funny in writing as it was with the included suspense of what the AI will make the poor actor blurt out next.) And even if everything ends up going perfectly well, the audience will simply be grinning and in awe, which is an equally acceptable result.
All in the spirit and with the purpose of good fun, Improbotic’s Rosetta Code is an extremely interesting theatrical experiment involving technology: perhaps even more fascinating for its unusual concept, than for the actual theatre that comes with it. Some parts of the performance were hilarious on the evening I saw the show (the scenes performed by Paul Little and Harry Turnbull were a particular treat), some merited a few chuckles rather than widespread laughter, but being part of the process and observing the creativity taking place in the room was definitely a delight. With the show changing from evening to evening it is, as with any other improv show, impossible to say that an hour of tremendous laughter is guaranteed. But then again, very few things in life come with a bullet-proof guarantee anyway. If you do get the chance of seeing this group of enthusiasts trying to innovate in the world of theatre by adding the most unexpected ingredient in the form of first-class science into the mix, do jump at it. I promise it’s all pretty harmless fun. Even if you are, like me, a bit reluctant to consider anything about robots funny.
Seen at the Rich Mix, SHoreditch, as part of the Voila! Europe festival on 10 November 2019
*The ticket for this performance was gifted.