Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: 'AI Love You' at the Vaults, 8th February 2018

AI Love You reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

AI Love You's future isn't here yet, but it's in the post. We chat with voice-activated home assistants like Amazon's Echo and Google's Home, the R&D into sex robots and teledildonics is accelerating and, perhaps sinisterly, unknowable algorithms analyse our behaviour and mould our online advertising and experience to our particular tastes. 

All that combines in Melanie Anne Ball's AI Love You, in which Adam (Peter Dewhurst) is a twentysomething Londoner in love with his robot girlfriend April (Eve Ponsonby). Three years ago he was selected to receive one of the first prototypes, programmed to adapt her behaviour to increase his happiness and identical in every way to a 'real' woman. 

Now he's fallen in love with her (and, apparently, she with him), and she's malfunctioning. This presents as a degenerative disease: she wants to be deactivated rather than slowly losing her mind. He wants to prevent what is effectively her suicide, arguing that you would do the same for any human loved one in the same circumstances

It's an interesting situation, amplified by the decision to make the show a debate fuelled by the audience. Throughout we're asked to vote on whose argument is more convincing, the results shaping the course of the show and culminating in a Q&A session with the characters. It's Black Mirror meets Jeremy Kyle!

For my part, I found the show an eerie and faintly sad insight into male entitlement. Adam was explicitly chosen because he's a 'normal' guy - with friends, a supportive family, a career and no psychological issues. Even so, his proximity to an artificial woman designed to make him happy is eroding his morals: April is programmed to "bend like a blade of grass" to unquestioningly emotionally support him, leading Adam to disparage human women as he considers he's already got perfection.

She is, essentially, his slave. The question of whether an AI has consciousness or is just simulating it through programming is not something the play can answer, though it if looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then as far as I'm concerned we should treat it like a duck. Based on that, it's clear that she's stuck in unwilling servitude - something underlined by Adam's ability to force her to do things by saying "it would make me happy if you would..." Tellingly, he subtly but repeatedly reinforces the concept of her as property rather than as a person.

A decade ago these issues would have been an interesting thought experiment, but now they're inching into reality. The consequences of emotional attachment to lifelike AIs are absolutely something we're going to have to deal with sometime in the next 20 years or so (realistic humanoid robots are still a pipe dream though), and this gives us a preview of arguments we're destined to see play out very soon.

Aside from all that, AI Love You is a downright neat piece of drama. Dewhurst and Ponsonby quickly and believably sketch out their characters, with Ponsonby's body language and motions ever-so-slightly 'off', revealing her robotic nature. They're both skilled improvisers, able to quickly and believably interact with the audience as the show goes on.

Relying on a receptive audience is a pretty bold dramatic move - especially as there's a portion of the show where a random audience member is expected to chair a discussion into the issues raised by the play. This could go badly wrong (I'm guessing it probably will at some point), but last night's audience was perceptive and engaged. Having said that, I'd love to know what other audiences voted for, and whether making April more obviously artificial would affect that.

It's refreshing to see a smart and well-performed play that places so much trust in its audience - it's nice to be able to give your opinion on a contentious situation in the moment. One of the highlights of a so far very good Vault Festival - check this out!

AI Love You is at Vault Festival until 11 February. Tickets here.

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