One thing that all human beings, regardless of race, creed or nationality, can probably agree on is that it is a great disappointment that, more than a dozen years into the 21st century, we still don’t have armies of robots to do our menial bidding. Motorized Frisbees sweeping up our dust bunnies hardly count. The Jetsons promised us sassy android maids; Isaac Asimov foresaw benevolent android helpmates we could occasionally frame for murder. Hell, even Dennis DeYoung figured he’d have to disguise himself as one to escape our tyrannical overlords.
But he and Styx got one thing right: Our eventual robotic workforce will inevitably be constructed from parts made in Japan. If the Uncanny Valley was a place on the map, it would be a casual day trip from Tokyo. The latest sign of hope for our mechanized future comes not on the factory floor but on the theater stage. Robot-Human Theater, a collaboration between Japan’s Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, comes to Philly this weekend under the auspices of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.
Both of the two short plays that make up question the boundary between man and machine. “I, Worker” deals with a robot that loses its motivation to work alongside a man going through a similar struggle, questioning the worth of both; “Sayonara” features an android consoling a girl suffering from a fatal illness.
The performances are among Live Arts’ first forays into year-round programming, soon to be housed in a new headquarters on the Delaware River waterfront. “This is emblematic of the great things that are possible,” says president and producing director Nick Stuccio. “It’s more than a robotics team displaying the robots that they built. Here’s a fantastical — or is it? — view into the future.”
Playwright and director Oriza Hirata, Seinendan’s founder, definitely sees his pair of plays as a sign of things to come. “I believe all Broadway stuntmen will become androids within 10 years,” he says via email. “If this technology had been developed quicker, then [the legendarily troubled Broadway adaptation of] Spider-Man would have been out in the public quicker."
Whether or not that particular debacle is the best example, Intelligent Robotics Lab director Ishiguro Hiroshi claims that scientists have much to learn from artists. “We robotics researchers are trying to build humanlike robots that work in our daily situations,” Hiroshi explains. “But we do not know how to make humanlike behaviors in natural situations. We are learning many ideas on it from the theater.”
For now, according to Hiroshi, Actors’ Equity doesn’t have too much to worry about. The robot actors aren’t autonomous; they don’t recognize or react to the actors, but “can precisely replay, and actors adapt to them.”
Hiroshi’s description of Hirata’s methods blurs the line a little further, suggesting the director sees little distinction between his live and mechanical actors.
“His directions are very precise, like computer programs,” Hiroshi says. “They are identical for both actors and robots. Therefore, it is quite easy to work with him. My role is to let him use our robots and develop the software according to his direction.”
Despite the robo-actors’ limitations, Hiroshi drew inspiration from traditional Japanese art forms. “The difference between the robot and a human is the degree of freedom for the body movements,” he says. “The robot is simpler than the human. Fortunately, we have a traditional puppet theater called bunraku in Japan. It is a good example for representing humanlike movements with the robot, which has a limited degree of freedom.”
Before turning to robotics, Hiroshi harbored dreams of becoming an artist. It’s clear that he sees his work as an art form in itself, albeit a highly technical one. “Science and engineering are coming from art,” he says. “In order to develop something new, scientists or engineers need to be artists. Then, after creating something based on artistic intuitions, we can find new principles in it.”
Hiroshi suggests that the collaboration, which came about when Hirata was appointed to a position at Osaka University, benefits his robotics research through the intangible insights that only theater can provide. “We can learn human behaviors through psychology and cognitive science,” he explains. “However, it is quite limited. The knowledge is very general and we cannot apply the knowledge in daily situations. However, the theater director knows how to make humanlike behaviors. We robotics researchers can learn many things from the theater director.”
And vice versa, according to Stuccio. “Everyone is interested in what the future holds for our species,” he says. “I think artwork is at its best when it shines a mirror on interesting things in society, and this is one of those occasions.”
Fri.-Sat., Feb. 15-16, 8 p.m., $18-$28, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 215-413-1318, .