Uncanny Valley

In the near-century since Czech writer Karel Capek first gave us the word “robot” (in his play R.U.R.) to describe a manufactured human being, robotics and artificial intelligence have stepped from the most cliched science fiction into the world around us. So congratulations to Rob Drummond of Borderland Theatre Company, the Ayr Gaiety Theatre and the Edinburgh International Science Festival for providing a highly engaging, child-friendly exploration of what AI actually means – after all, given the rate computer technology continues to advance, it’s the next generation who’ll most likely have to deal with all its consequences!

Performed with wit and élan on Fergus Dunnet’s minimalistic set (all darkness and neon blue panels) with easily understood character switches and plenty of audience interaction

The term “uncanny valley” usually refers to how most people are quite happy with artificial beings that are either “barely human” (e.g. cartoons) or “fully human”; it’s when something “isn’t quite right” (eg, shop window mannequins, for example) that there’s a sense of “uncanniness” that leads to discomfort and even hostility. In Drummond’s new production, however, Uncanny Valley becomes a town, whose Mayor (a bang-on-the-mark Kirsty Stuart) decided that all artificial intelligence devices – “arties” – are dangerous and therefore has had them crushed and buried outside town.

This is bad news for the new girl at school, Ada (a focused Pamela Reid); abandoned by both parents, she now only communicates with other people through her own self-programmed “artie” OKAY (Outstandingly Knowledgeable Android Youth). When this comes to the attention of the Mayor, a compromise of sorts is reached, thanks to the kindly teacher (played by Drummond) who is also our guide to the story. OKAY will not be destroyed if it can successfully pass for human in a Turing Test; unfortunately, Ada has just the weekend to program OKAY sufficiently well that it can prove it is “alive”.

Performed with wit and élan on Fergus Dunnet’s minimalistic set (all darkness and neon blue panels) with easily understood character switches and plenty of audience interaction, this intelligent three-hander proves to be a surprisingly thought-provoking tale that nevertheless holds the attention of even its youngest audience members. While quite deliberately “about” some pretty important issues, Drummond never forgets the drama; arguably the most emotive scene occurs when a distraught Ada finds herself on the edge of town, among the half-buried wreckage of the other “arties”. Not all of them were totally destroyed; when Drummond can hold our attention with a conversation between two “arties”, he’s clearly doing something right.

Of course, science fiction writers have long used robots and aliens as metaphors to explore the human condition; initially, it’s slightly worrying that this play suggests it might just be our ability to “make mistakes and be mean”. It’s more heartfelt conclusion, however, is that “the Category of Human is unstable” – that is, humans are the continuing result of our interactions with other people. At the very least, though, it’s hoped that the younger audience members will remember – as the play makes clear early on – that being human requires more than just reading and processing a tiny fraction of the internet!

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

An interactive show for eight to 12 year olds (and their parents), Uncanny Valley asks you, the audience, to interact with a ‘live’ robot and help futuristic science teacher Rob Drummond tell the story of Ada and her best friend OKAY (Outstandingly Knowledgable Android Youth). You see OKAY is under threat of being terminated and the only way to stop this is to prove he or she is exactly the same as you or me. Watch as Ada creates and improves OKAY, join in by playing the role of Ada’s classmates, ask your very own questions to the robot and try to decide whether you think OKAY is nothing but electrical impulses and computer codes or… something more. Something almost human.

Whether you enjoy interacting, performing on stage or just sitting back and watching an exciting story unfold, this show will offer an insight into the past present and future of Artificial Intelligence and empower the audience to ask and answer some very big questions in an exciting and safe environment.

Written by award-winning playwright, Rob Drummond

Directed by Emily Reutlinger

Presented by Borderline Theatre Co in partnership with Ayr Gaiety.

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