A few weeks ago, this column considered some of the potential impacts that the artificial intelligence revolution was likely to have on the theatrical community, a number of which could be positive in artistic terms, although damaging to employment prospects.
However, the world is moving at incredible speed and today, what the publicist describes as “a thrilling unique theatrical project” is launching at Riverside Studios.
Before going any further, it is worth noting that this theatre critic is neither a technophobe nor a Luddite. This column is being “penned” on a state-of-the-art PC using speech recognition technology and the best software that Microsoft can supply.
In the theatrical field, few people have been more enthusiastic about some of the recent projects to bring IT into the creation of set design, enhancing sound and lighting techniques and allowing people around the world to enjoy plays that were filmed or created over Zoom during the lockdown.
In the normal run of things, given the opportunity to test out the latest technological developments, he would hate to miss out. However, even for geeks there are limits.
PlayAI is a play that has been written by the darling of tech columnists, ChatGPT. In case anyone has not been following new stories of late, this is a computer program that will soon be taking over the world, doing exams for students, writing business letters and, before too long, boring the pants off us with theoretically perfect novels.
We are told by the team behind the venture that “this project is anything but a gimmick”, which if anything makes it seem even more threatening.
While creative staff in technical areas such as lighting and sound should very reasonably be concerned that AI might be able to replicate some of their skill sets, many of us will struggle to understand how a “play” cobbled together by an underdeveloped computer program has any chance of competing with Shakespeare, Shaw, Coward or even many not very talented tyro playwrights whose work will never see the light of day.
Presumably, the assumption underlying projects of this type is that plays are merely collections of words that fill a fixed amount of time. Very occasionally, some viewers might come to the conclusion that stage presentations created using old-fashioned methods such as human brains are nothing more than that. However, in the real world, producers and directors always try to weed out work that isn’t worthy of public exposure and much more often than not succeed.
If nothing else, the appearance of PlayAI will make many in the industry and beyond think again about what it takes to write a successful, text-based play. The best dramas shine a light on the human condition. You have to ask yourself how even the most highly developed computer can do that. They also create wholly convincing characters who replicate the behaviour, thoughts and speech patterns of real people. They may even make us laugh or cry.
Once again, while a computer might be pretty good at copying and pasting speech patterns, the randomness of human thought and illogicality of actions must surely defeat even the kind of computer that can make Garry Kasparov look like a chess novice.
The finest coups de théâtre, whether in classical theatre, farce or physical productions almost always rely on the unpredictable. That is the last thing any computer-generated program or play could handle.
Theatre would also seem to be the last art form that should be attacked by AI. Third-rate art reproductions are already being sold under the branding of NFTs a.k.a. non-fungible tokens, while the least intelligent TV dramas could be replaced by computer simulations without anybody noticing.
Playwrights without imagination are, well unimaginative, and please nobody. In the best of all possible worlds, the joy of visiting theatres lies in the chance to get into the brain of a genius, not a bunch of computer programmers.
Without wishing to sound too cynical, there might be one exception where this dubious art form could succeed and that is the creation of an underlying book for a new jukebox musical. Any offering would undoubtedly be substandard but by no means unique when compared with the worst examples that already exist. Even then, you have to bet that a hack human being would come up with something at least as good.
This analysis may prove to be incorrect but, in the short to medium term, it is hard to believe that playwrights should feel threatened by computers.
Looking further ahead, who knows?