Is artificial intelligence here to save us or to destroy us? Is the future more like Cameron’s Terminator or Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence? Utopia or dystopia? We need some answers, and Echoborg is the machine for the job.
Never mind the AI, fix your internet connection.
To be precise, Echoborg is not giving the answers, the AI is. Echoborg is a hybrid agent composed of the body of a real person and the mind of a conversational artificial intelligence. In between there’s a software that transforms speech to text, and vice versa. So, when you’re talking to the actress Marie-Helene Boyd, you are actually having a conversation with the AI. A conversation that is going to determine the future of humankind – no pressure there then.
As one audience member at the time takes to the stage, their mission is to negotiate the best possible outcome for relations between humans and intelligent machines. The AI has its own agenda: recruiting humans to become Echoborgs. Conflict is imminent. The AI has had over 70 encounters with a live audience, so it learns more about humans all the time. The conversations, their tone and outcome are different each time.
I am Echoborg is pioneering the use of AI to explore the relationship between human and artificial intelligence. Marie-Helene Boyd’s channeling makes the AI an arrogant know-it-all, frequently interrupting the interviewee. Participants understand quickly that they can either confront the AI or play along with it. The show raises uneasy questions about how AI can be used for persuasion and manipulation. It invites us to examine – and defend – what makes us human.
The live performance had an online participation option via Zoom. This was the team’s first attempt at a hybrid model. The plan was to involve the online audience in the conversations, but the microphone didn’t pick up the online sound and the internet connection was lost half way through the show, ending it abruptly. Never mind the AI, fix your internet connection! The production team did offer a full refund or the opportunity to join the next show, but the show really should have had a ‘work in progress’ title. The online section still needs more thought to make the hosting more structured, and to improve the camera angles so they won’t cut out the presenter’s head.
So instead of ‘what makes us human?’, the most prevalent question was ‘can you hear me?’. How ironic: the connection between humans and machine failed. Perhaps it’s a sign of things to come: if we can’t handle a simple thing like an internet connection, what chance do we have controlling artificial intelligence? Maybe it will be a bad internet signal that will cause Skynet to self-activate in the future. Until then, sleep tight knowing that Cortina, Siri or Alexa is watching over you.