Breakfast Plays: Tech Will Tear Us Apart (?) – The Conversation





Traverse Theatre



16 – 28 Aug (not 22)


 Oh my, what a piece!  Intense, thought-provoking, very funny, very sad: a cracking script, very well- delivered.


A drunken Glaswegian tries to find an answer to the question that’s bothering him: he has no-one to talk to, so he turns to his computer and engages in conversation with “an on-line artificial intelligence machine”.


Despite the fact that this was ‘just’ a read-through of a work in progress, the performance was alive and engaging.  Was this conversation really being conducted verbally rather than via a keyboard and screen?  The Turing test, which posits that in 70% of cases, a machine programmed to generate human-like responses to a human enquirer would deceive the human – but that assumes that the conversation was conducted via a keyboard.  Have things advanced so far now that voice response can also deceive?  I don’t know.


What was clear initially was the contrast between the living, breathing, feeling, sighing, depressed, drunken playwright and slightly artificial but programmed-to-be-responsive and almost-human Chatbot: the computer bright and cheerful, relatively emotionless, unable to understand and respond to voice tone and facial expression while the human ran the full gamut of emotions.  There is so much more to communication than the words we use, and the words themselves are open to any number of interpretations and misinterpretations resulting from our internal programming, conditioning, and human experience.  However, as the conversation continued, the differences became blurred…  The situation didn’t get as far as that in the film HER, in which Joaquín Phoenix falls in love with the ‘person’ who is voicing his computer, who is programmed to adapt herself to the user: but it was  a good step along the way.


Another audience member commented that the computer had too much personality: surely that was the point, that “she” was programmed to imitate humanity, to answer in a human way, and to learn as “she” went along: but it was also clear that however hard “she” tried “she” couldn’t catch the subtext – voice, sigh, gesture and suchlike which we like to think distinguishes us from the machine – when “she” didn’t understand the question, “she” produced a string of non-sequiturs, which were amusing, but also began to reflect, comment on, and challenge what He was saying to “her”, as the conversation looped and spiralled, slowly revealing just what his question was.


It’s a telling comment on society, that He is reduced to chatting to a machine because he doesn’t have a friend to talk it all through with – and, indeed, that technology is credited with being able to provide the answer to all our problems.


This was an excellent start to the Traverse’s series looking at the potential effect of technology on our lives:  I’m really looking forward to the other three plays, and won’t begrudge the effort involved in such an early start to my day!


Mary Woodward