This post is inspired by the intelligent and 5th-grade-sassy Shawna James’ recent blog post, Science and the Arts: A Love Story.
Head over to Central Square Theatre and you will find an example of how science and the arts are a match made in heaven. 12 years ago, the Catalyst Collaborative At MIT program was founded, a collaboration between MIT and the two companies in residence at the Central Square Theatre, Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theatre. CC@MIT works to “bring together theater artists and scientists to create and present plays that deepen public understanding of science and technology.” This season, the two companies have programmed a total of three CC@MIT plays between them.
One of the two plays being produced by Nora Theatre Company is Marjorie Prime, Jordan Harrison‘s 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist that premiered in November 2015 at Playwrights Horizons. The play is about “85-year-old Marjorie, a woman whose memory is fading, is kept company by a handsome, younger version of her husband Walter, programmed to talk with her about her past.” It examines what might happen if (or maybe when) Artificial Intelligence becomes advanced enough to have conversations with us, take care of us, remember the memories we can’t remember ourselves, and maybe even generate new ones.
One of CC@MIT’s commitments is to “examine the human condition through the lens of science and technology.” What Marjorie Prime gives us is the opportunity to examine the very nature of human interaction. We watch as Tess, Marjorie’s daughter, has a more open conversation with Marjorie’s AI replacement (her Prime) than she ever seemed to have with the real Marjorie, pointing out that if it were her real mother Tess were talking too, the conversation would have broken down a long time ago. Marjorie Prime is all the benefits of Mom without the judgemental comments and snarky one-liners. But the Primes can only feel what they’re told they feel. They can never create their own memories or feel their own emotions. What the real Marjorie lacked in conversational abilities, she made up for in love. Self-generated, unshakeable, real human love. What we’re left with is a sense that no matter how far science might advance, we’ll never truly be able to recreate the feeling of human-to-human interaction.
The act of creating a play is an attempt to examine the human condition. The play itself is a hypothesis, and every performance of it is an experiment. We hope that by the time the lights go down again, we will have some new answers, some new data to analyze. The audience leaves having drawn their own conclusions. Have we proven our hypothesis? Or must we go back and experiment again?
The theatre is also the perfect place to work out the ethical intricacies of the advancements of science. Why wait to see how things will play out when you can try every possibility for yourself? You can do all the experiments you want without threat of any harm.
At last Friday’s performance of Marjorie Prime, the man in the front row was a Computer Engineering major with a concentration in Artificial Intelligence. The woman behind him was an older white lady who’s been coming to the theatre for years. The family behind them was just interested in science and were relatively new to the theatre. The audience at that performance was an example of why the intersection of science and art can be only good: it literally brings more people to the theatre! It brings more people to experience the magic of watching humans on stage while sitting in a room of other humans. It encourages a higher percentage of audience members than I’ve ever seen to stay for the talk back (which happen after every CC@MIT performance) and be excited to participate. Science lights people’s fires the same way theatre does. What can possibly be lost by finding how they work together?
And maybe, if we keep encouraging the intersection of the arts and the sciences, we might not ever feel the need to turn to computers in human bodies to find comfort. We’ll just have to go to the theatre.