Guest post by Phil D. Hall

What do you get if you take an anthropologist who has been building Conversational A.I. since 1982, mix in polymath who made one of the first UK web dramas, magic-tree, and produced and directed Wannabes, the BBC’s first interactive soap and engage a professional actress that can echo the words of an A.I. in real-time, whatever it says, however it says it ?

You get an interactive audience driven performance which delivers the “unusual” experience of a set of humans negotiating through a human being ( the Echoborg ) with an Artificial Intelligence that is trying to recruit them, to be…Echoborgs. If the audience is smart, inquisitive, persistent and interesting to the A.I. it might talk about broader matters, that’s the challenge. Or to put a finer point on it, the presented challenge is for the audience to agree: “The best possible outcome between humans and intelligent machines”.

Clear so far?

The system is a production strength system, more sophisticated in its development and abilities than offensively highly-financially invested technologies like Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Bixby. We took the I am Echoborg system for a run last month, 9 shows in total in theatres, workshops, a student union and an A.I. conference, and the reactions were striking. From people who are long in the tooth and from people that are fresh on the block of Conversational A.I. we have received quotes that show real shock from the audience as to how real a Conversational A.I. can be.

Everyone, aside from one young man who seemed to have misogynistic and control issues, stepped away from the experience recognising that they had seen something new, unusual. The word “brilliant” has been bandied about a lot.

So, is it because it is clever that I am Echoborg is relevant?

Far from it … if an organisation wants a system that is similarly shocking/honest/useful they only need to ask the right people. It’s relevant because no one leaves the show feeling the same about our digital “contract” with A.I., particularly through the Big Tech companies that have covertly rolled out behavioural modification algorithms in the business model of surveillance capitalism.

Next steps, why am I telling you this ?

In the three workshops we ran we were joined by a social anthropologist who is currently crunching his way through the information we gathered on how people felt about A.I. from various different perspectives.  We’ll share the output from this activity in a future article but now the dust has settled on our most comprehensive I am Echoborg run of shows thus far we’ll get back to the daily grind of building Conversational A.I. for less disruptive outcomes.

The I am Echoborg show is delivered by Phil D Hall, Rik Lander, Marie-Helene Boyd, Nicola Strong, and a small team of quite crazy mischievous people who like to pull back the curtain to allow some light, insight, diversity and clarity in. Same kind of principles as bringing social scientists into the development activities that are currently computer and data scientists…

Watch the trailer here.

Photo credit: Dawn Walter, taken at a performance of I am Echoborg at the Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol on 9 October 2019.