AI on Stage

Image: August Cole

It was a packed house, just not the usual crowd for a think tank event.

But last week in London, an unusual evening of theater and discussion about artificial intelligence and the future of conflict brought together more than 200 people, including actors and art students, military and civilian government officials, tech and defense industry, among others.

The event, “Staging the Future: Artificial Intelligence and Conflict,” was put on by the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, in partnership with Central St. Martins and the Platform Theatre. There are myriad efforts underway currently to better understand, and prepare for, a future in which computers and other machines can operate with human-like reasoned judgments and individual initiative but many of these reports or conferences overlook the crucial questions of the human element. As theater is inherently an analog – and live — activity, it focuses the audience’s attention on the actors on stage.

Even if they are playing the role of machines. Three of the four actors in the opening performance of “A Pregame Discussion,” a 10-minute play written by Jason Hansa, portrayed artificial general intelligence entities. Hansa’s play won a crowd-sourced contest held by the Council’s Art of the Future project and judged by George Brant, an award-winning playwright who wrote Grounded. “A Pregame Discussion” depicts a solitary Army “isolation warrior” whose fragile state is nurtured by her lifelike artificial general intelligence teammates.

This was the first of four short performances, which included a reading of Council senior fellow Jamie Metzl’s story “A Visit to Weizenbaum,” a performance of Ben Alderton’s “Gr3g,” and a reading of Mark Sable’s contest-winning Nobel Peace Prize speech, “Exceeding Programming,” given by an artificial general intelligence entity honored for its work combating violent extremism.

Alderton directed all of the plays and readings, as well.

Image: August Cole
Image: Performance of ‘Gr3g’

What made this event unusual was the sequencing of expert discussions that followed the performances. Two panels, moderated by Dr. Ali Hossaini and Dr. Conrad Tucker, explored decision-making and legal responsibility in the AI era and engineering the perfect fighter, respectively. Panelists included Grady Booch, chief scientist at IBM Watson/M, Pippa Malmgren, Oliver Lewis, Nick Yeung, Keith Dear, and other technology and military experts.

The panelists were divided at times over key issues around legal responsibility, as an example of one of the many crucial points unearthed during the event. Does it lie with the programmer who wrote the code of a system that’s gone awry or with the entity that employed it? This is a matter for peacetime as much as during a conflict. On the subject of the battles of the future, the presence of increasingly autonomous machines seems all but assured. What role they will have spurred a vigorous conversation about the nature of military leadership. Given the effectiveness at algorithms in engineering relationships between devices and humans, as is the case with virtual assistants on mobile phones. What if, the panelists asked, the most charismatic and leader-like member of a military unit is a machine, not a human?

Image: August Cole
Image: August Cole

The event closed with a set of “salon” sessions allowing smaller groups from the audience to interact more directly with panelists, actors, and experts. This sort of broad creative engagement is at the core of the Art of the Future Project’s mission. The salons included topics such as how might sci-fi and art shape conflict involving AI — featuring artist Johannes Grenzfurthner —  and ensuring civil society has a voice in techno-progress.

As with many of the themes and issues explored, the discussions and performances do not deliver clear-cut answers. Nor should they. But they do prompt further exploration from a wider range of participants, as befits the world-changing potential of these technologies and their expected impact on future conflict. The event’s approach of using live theater and crowd-sourced, as well as commissioned, material serves this pursuit of insight far better than conventional approaches.