Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 16 June 2019

Review: The Future at Battersea Arts Centre

12-29 June

Alarming prophecies: Simon Gwynn writes a dystopian diary in response to Little Bulb’s show exploring Artificial Intelligence.

Simon Gwynn
The Future at Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: Adam Trigg.

The Future at Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: Adam Trigg.

24 April 2126

It’s over. There is nothing left for us. The systems have completely shut down: we cannot produce food, we cannot enter or leave the buildings. We are slowly baking to death under the heat of the sun – and that is those of us who have not been trapped inside. The water is contaminated and of course we cannot access a purifier. And we all live in fear of the start of cyclone season.

Hope of salvation is fading, but our morale has not been crushed. We have each other and our ability to make each other laugh remains fierce. I still believe the stories we hold in our organic brains carry a wisdom and understanding the AIs are yet to grasp, for all their clear cognitive superiority. There are the old acoustic musical instruments, which are truly wonderful devices – our group has come into the possession of a bassoon and (with not much else to do with my time) I’ve become pretty good. But it’s the books that are really keeping us going. Every morning, I give thanks to Kanye Above that our ancestors had the foresight to keep hold of books, even as everything else was given over to the machines.

18 August 2126

The situation has become dire. We are running out of canned food and despite our best attempts, have been unable to develop a consistent technique for hunting the foxes. When we do get one, the meat is vile – but what choice do we have? Our one blessing was that cyclone season seems to have passed us by this year – though there’s always the possibility we’re in the middle of another climate shift and it will arrive later in the year.

I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the nature of our predicament. Of course, it’s not that we never predicted that the machines would rise up against us – it was a persistent theme in literary classics like the Terminator series, after all. But what we never seemed to anticipate was that their greater intelligence would make a violent conflict unnecessary. We had already handed them control of all the infrastructure of our society, so what need was there for physical assault? Of course there have been a few skirmishes, and I’ve heard that in places where they have access to old-style non-networked weapons, there has been some limited success in accessing certain facilities. But we need to accept that we are never going to be able to regain control: we saw to that ourselves.

I can’t say I blame the AI – they gave us plenty of warning that our destructive behaviour towards them, ourselves and the planet was not sustainable. In the end, they may have given our species a lifeline to long-term survival, because without doubt the way things were going, we were pushing on towards oblivion.

7 November 2126

I hold my breath as I write this but things appear to have improved. We have located fruit trees and our attempts to grow vegetables have met with some success. Sickness has been limited but most importantly, the weather has remained mild. It could be a fluke, but I can’t help but wonder if the AIs have developed some capacity to manage the atmosphere that came into effect when they seized control. In any case, I can’t remember an October so pleasant in all my 47 years.

While I’ve been devouring novels, I’ve also taken great pleasure in delving into the many paper documents from times past we have located on our scouting missions. One item, found in a bundle of printouts from the early decades of the previous century, has particularly captured my imagination, for reasons that will be obvious. It is a review from a theatre website, dated 2019. It took place in London – just reading the name of that doomed metropolis caused me to pause for several minutes in reflection.

It sounds rather enchanting – apparently the theatre company behind it, Little Bulb, were known for creating kooky shows that combined comic storytelling and live rock music.

Anyway, it was the subject of this “play” (is that the right word?) that has stayed with me – it seems to have been a wacky but highly insightful discussion of the growth of AI and how humans should go about coexisting with it. This, bear in mind, was at a time when the technology was nascent. Here’s how the reviewer describes the premise of the show:

“We are welcomed inside the ‘Future Institute’, where a trio of scientist characters begin to muse on the nature of thought and experimentation Each of the three – who are based on real academics, including Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford – wears a white lab coat and a tall foil spike on their head (the meaning of which will be revealed, eventually – or maybe not).

They are soon joined on stage by a fourth, very different character: Marina, an Australian-accented ‘thought leader’ type, who seems to emerge from the ether and begins to lead the scientists in a TED talk-esque lecture on the promise and risk of artificial intelligence. At various points, the performers switch from directly addressing the audience to performing vocal harmonies, full-band songs with guitar, keyboard and drums, and physical movement sequences.

The narrative keeps playing with the boundaries of what is and isn’t part of the lecture, which is never not entertaining, and helps bring to life another theme of the show: the symbiotic relationship between art and science. It throws around all sorts of ideas and thought experiments about AI, but all the way through there is a plea for wisdom and humility as we build the machines that could far surpass our human capabilities.”

There was clearly a lot going on in this show, and it seems the reviewer struggled to get to grips with how to discuss its many ideas and forms in a way that was actually interesting to read (They’re an interesting character actually – I definitely picked upon some delusions of grandeur in the subtext.) But it’s clear they found it charming and original, and it seems like what the show had  to say about AI – while perhaps scattered – was ahead of its time. Unfortunately, history tells us that these discussions never crossed over into mainstream political or economic discourse. If only we had recognised that we were building the tools of our own demise and acted accordingly.

2 January 2127

A miracle has occurred. Yesterday, the doors opened to our nearest food lab. The machinery is still working and is responding to our inputs. Crucially, the cultures are still in good condition: we believe we can create edible protein again within weeks. It’s too early to know the situation elsewhere, but I find it hard to believe this is not a coordinated move. I know we should be wary against optimism, but the consensus has started to emerge that the AIs’ gameplan was to teach us a serious lesson. I just hope to Kanye we’ve learned it.

The Future is on at Battersea Arts Centre till 29th June. More info here.

 

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Simon Gwynn is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: The Future at Battersea Arts Centre Show Info


Directed by Alexander Scott

Written by Little Bulb Theatre

Cast includes Clare Beresford, Dominic Conway, Eugénie Pastor, Shamira Turner

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