Thoughts on Robots and Humans

"Sayonoara" by Tatsuo Nambu. The performer to the left is an android.

“Sayonoara” by Tatsuo Nambu. The performer to the left is an android.

It’s hard to know what to talk about first after seeing a play with robot actors.

Last Friday, I saw the Robot Theater Project at Japan Society, a program of two plays, Sayonara and I, Worker. The Project is a collaboration between Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University, exploring, well, the implications of non-living “actors” in live theater. These plays feature both robots and human actors interacting with each other, but interest goes first of all to the robots: how are they going to perform? How does their presence read?

Presence? Robots?

Part of me wants to just focus on the play, and not get stuck on the robots as exotic specimens that drive the entire performance. The plays have a lot to them independent of the robots, but the robots can’t help but hold center stage. Rather than trying to get around this and talk about the several unique aspects of writer/director Oriza Hirata’s theatrical style (timing, uneventful events, drawing the audience in rather than the actors projecting out), I’ll just embrace it and go with the experiment this project clearly wants us to join them on.

The interesting questions revolving around the robots are, it turns out, what they reveal about humans. The interest for the scientist collaborator—Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a researcher on robotics at Osaka University—is that having the robots “perform” theater forces them to deal with things generally restricted to the realm of human—specifically, emotions. In developing the robots, emotional representation is not the first priority, most of the time—how to get the machine to move, the mechanics of mobility and operation, must necessarily come first. Yet using these machines in this play meant working to get them to perform “human-ness”. How should a machine perform human-ness? What method do they adopt to indicate elements of human-ness?

It’s tempting to focus entirely on this relationship between the robots and humans, and how the director and scientist try to make robots imitate them. In a way, you have to get past the gimmick. The robots are the draw, naturally, but too narrow a focus on them and you might miss how they are actually the indicators of meaning, not the entire meaning in themselves. The robots are like stick figures, in a way: they present a basic structure of humanness, revealing how little it takes to make us think “human”. Instead of lines to represent body parts, the robots take on gestures, speech patterns, and topics that read as states of emotional distress, crisis, or even care for fellow(?) beings. No one is fooled into thinking these robots have emotions, any more than stick figures would make anyone think that human bodies are one-dimensional, but I think we are at least given a model of the components of emotional interaction distilled out from the human form.

In Sayonara, the first play on this program, an android (robot made to appear to be a human) reads poetry to a young woman with a terminal illness, close to death. At one point, the woman (no name given: the script lists her simply as “B”, the android as “A”) interrupts the android and says, “I think probably I’m going to die soon. Probably, right?” After a pause of several seconds, A responds, “Yes.” This delay, followed by A’s plain, unadorned response, reads as hesitation, an uncertainty caused by processing how to respond to a tender situation. Witnessing a robot perform this pattern draws the structure of an emotional exchange in the play, so clearly that the exchange reads, even without presenting the actual emotions (it is an android, after all).

In the second play, I, Worker, two robots (not androids—these look more like R2-D2 than C3PO) that are meant to be houseworkers go about their tasks, engaging in conversations with with their owners, a husband and wife (Yuuji and Ikue) who have recently lost their child. At various points throughout this play, the robots will tilt their heads, or move their arms in obviously un-functional gestures to mimic human expression. The result is more humorous than convincing (it’s intended that way), but again it reveals a structure of expression even where the feeling behind that structure can’t be present. This point is reversed at the end of the play, when one of the robots observes that Yuuji and Ikue, watching the sunset together, must be remembering someone—the structure of their behavior allows the robot to recognize the emotions, even if the robot can’t feel it itself.

Hirata’s understated style allows these moments to work as points for reflection rather than contrivances. There is a lot more to consider in this juxtaposition of technology and humans—and what it could mean for theater in the future. Or, just ignore the robots as you might your friend’s smartphone and enjoy the poetry.

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