When I was at college back in the early 1970s, I shared a house with two psych majors and a calculus geek who worked in the Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) center on campus. While hanging out at CAI waiting for a ride home from my housemates one day, I was introduced to Eliza. Innovative for its time, Eliza was a computer program that had been developed to act as a surrogate psychoanalyst by responding in consistent ways to certain English keywords and grammatical constructions. Like a good shrink, Eliza was supposed to “listen” in a non-judgmental way and prod you to achieve catharsis by venting your troubles — only at a keyboard instead of on a couch.
My friends and I quickly discovered that it was fun to try to mess with Eliza’s mind. Her grasp of syntax was pretty limited and her responses pretty rote, so it didn’t take much experimentation to figure out how to make her spew amusing gobbledegook. If you tried to “seduce” Eliza by typing, “I want to play with your keys,” she would reliably respond, “What about your own keys?”
As I was minoring in linguistics, my fascination with Eliza had less to do with free psychotherapy than with all the intellectual ferment in the air at the time over Noam Chomsky’s theories on Transformational/Generative Grammar and the relationship between language and cognition. Could a computer ever grasp grammar as intuitively as a human, and if so, would we have to redefine what makes us human? Would a day eventually come when two machines could have a truly meaningful conversation with each other, using English rather than some computer language?
It was also in the early 1970s that Chomsky had his famous debate on human nature on Dutch TV with the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Here’s how digital performance artist and Obie Award-winning stage director Annie Dorsen, currently artist-in-residence in Bard College’s new Live Arts Bard program, describes that debate:
“The topic was an age-old question: Is there such a thing as ‘innate’ human nature independent of our experiences and external influences? What begins as a philosophical argument rooted in linguistics (Chomsky) and the theory of knowledge (Foucault) soon evolves into a broader discussion encompassing a wide range of topics, from science, history and behaviorism to creativity, freedom and the struggle for justice in the realm of politics.
“Neither was satisfied with his own (or the other’s) performance, and it is generally regarded as a problematic and rather lackluster meeting. Nonetheless the debate offers a unique look at an exceptional meeting between two key thinkers of the 20th century — as well as, unintentionally, an example of the failure of dialogue to produce new understanding and new thought.”
More than 40 years later, Dorsen has taken that iconic-if-flawed debate to its next logical level, substituting state-of-the-art artificial intelligence for the two human intellectual giants. Her performance art piece titled Hello Hi There, to be presented on Tuesday, November 27 at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Fisher Center’s Theater Two, is described as “a play without actors in which computer chatbots discuss human nature…a literal expression of Posthumanism and simultaneously an examination of what it means to be human.” Hello Hi There premiered at the Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz, and was presented at Black Box Theatre in Oslo, BIT Teatergarasjen in Bergen, Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin and PS 122 in New York.
Every conversation between the chatbots in Hello Hi There forges a unique path due to their custom-made software, which has been programmed to mimic the nuances of human conversation. The result is an unexpected, uncanny and humorous meditation on what separates humans from machines. “The questions of the piece (what is a human, what’s the difference between language and thought, what constitutes a ‘useful’ or ‘useless’ idea et cetera) are pretty interesting to us humans. We tend to be curious about ourselves,” says Dorsen.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I can’t contemplate the phrase “Hi there!” without hearing the voice of Eddie the Shipboard Computer in the BBC radio version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So I’m inclined to expect more humor than deep philosophizing from this rather novel theater piece. But whether it comes off as a serious exercise in metacognition and metalanguage or just a goof, Hello Hi There is bound to provoke a lot of discussion. And there will in fact be a discussion with Dorsen and Maria Cecire, coordinator of the Bard Experimental Humanities Program and assistant professor of Literature, following the 6 p.m. performance.
One wonders what Chomsky — still hale and as mentally sharp as ever, based on his packed-to-the-gills lecture at SUNY-New Paltz last spring — makes of all this. Politically, he may not entirely approve of theater pieces that don’t create paying work for live actors. He may even think that his seminal work on artificial intelligence back in the ‘60s and ‘70s has created a monster. But he does have a demonstrated sense of humor. It was Chomsky, after all, who gave us the immortal observation that “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
Tickets to Annie Dorsen’s Hello Hi There at Bard on November 27 cost $20 general admission, $16 for seniors and $5 for Bard students. To order, call 845-758-7900 or see http://fishercenter.bard.edu. For more info about the artist, visit www.anniedorsen.com.
Hello Hi There by Annie Dorsen, Tuesday, November 27, 6 & 8 p.m., $20/$16/$5, Theater Two, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, http://fishercenter.bard.edu.