In the foyer children sit on tiny chairs. A couple of them spring up eagerly to get into the theatre first. Inside the space are tiny benches and some adult-sized ones. A table holds a laptop and iPad, and there are lots of wires and loop pedals so that Daniel Bye, writer and performer, can create a musical score as he tells the story of a ten year old boy. The boy’s friend Simon dies, so his mother builds a robot to replace Simon.
Bye asks the audience to programme the story. We come up with characters’ names. These are the variables, the human inputs. One of the characters, Jeff, is a bad man. Bye asks us to suggest what crimes he has committed. ‘Murder?’ a small girl suggests sweetly.
From the beginning Bye throws open questions of existentialism, of metaphysics, of how we know we are not dreaming. He talks about a dream he had from which he kept thinking he had woken up, but every time he was sure he was awake…he woke up. There is Theseus’ paradox updated to the 21st century: if an evil arsonist and murderer can have his brain completely rewired so that he becomes really nice, is he still the same person? A small group of children are unwittingly being forced to confront some of the knottiest thought experiments in philosophy, all the while being told a story of a boy and his robot best friend.
Little windows cut into the back wall show animated fragments of the story, but apart from that it has to exist in our imaginations. Bye can certainly tell a story. Not only is he energetic and expressive enough for the characters to come alive in our heads, but there are some beautiful lines. The death of his friend prompts the boy to reflect on how that one shattering moment will always be in his future. “For the rest of my life I’m going to be someone whose best friend died when he was 10.”
The Turing Test, or the imitation game (thankfully Cumberbatch is nowhere in sight), is a way of telling artificial intelligence from a human. Bye incorporates this idea into the show, wondering if a robot could ever be a best friend, and whether that robot – even if he has all the same memories and the same biographical details as Simon – could ever actually be Simon. Bye poses a problem: if you had to tell the difference between a computer and a human, and the computer could lie, what would you ask? After some suggestions, one girl brilliantly offers, ‘what does ice cream taste like’?
With its intelligent meditations on artificial intelligence, on cloud storage, memory and the gap between human and robot Error 404 is almost a child-friendly episode of Black Mirror. It tackles the hard problem of consciousness in a far less heavy-handed way than Stoppard and engages a young audience in deep, deep thought.