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Annie Dorsen Makes Laptops Talk

Date: Jan 07, 2011


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Is it natural to have a conversation? Is it human? Does our ability to swap phrases with other people prove that we're not machines?

You might say, "Yes. Obviously," but then there's Hello Hi There, a new piece by Annie Dorsen that suggests a conversation is not what it seems. After all, the discussion in the show, which runs through January 22 in P.S. 122's COIL Festival, is not between two people. It's between two laptops.

<Hello Hi There  features chatbots, computer programs designed to replicate human interaction by generating text and audio. (If you ever get "customer service" from a store's "online representative," and you notice that she only responds with flat sentences about shipping fees, then you're dealing with a chatbot, not a person.)

Dorsen, who directed and co-wrote the Broadway musical Passing Strange, toys with just how "artificial" a chatbot's intelligence really is. The show begins with video footage of a debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky. Soon, the sound drops out of the video and two onstage laptops "discuss" it. We hear their computerized voices (one male and one female) and we see the text of what they're saying printed on a screen.


But here's the catch: the chatbots don't follow a script. They share a database of about 3,500 statements, and they're programmed to say them in essentially random order. One laptop might recite a poem, and a word in that poem might trigger the other laptop to choose one of hundreds of responses. The randomness means they'll never have the same conversation twice.

You might say this isn't a conversation at all---just two computers following a program. But when humans talk, aren't we just pulling responses from a large database of acceptable words and phrases?

Dorsen savors this conundrum. "There are so many things [the computers] do that ring bells with human behavior," she says. "Looping: They repeat themselves in strange ways, and my god, I find myself saying the same thing over and over again. My brain gets in a loop when I'm stressed. They make language strange again. They make constructions seem odd, and you start to think, 'My god, that is a strange metaphor.'"

In other words, listening to chattering computers could make all language seem arbitrary. "There is a slightly dark underbelly where you can start to think about the pointlessness of it," Dorsen says. "You can think, 'What are we doing when we talk to each other?'"

But there are other things to take from the show. For one thing, the random discussion, which includes Shakespeare quotes, snippets of philosophy, and even comments from a YouTube video of the Chomsky-Foucault debate, makes a weird kind of sense. It's almost impossible not to impose meaning on it.

When the piece toured Europe, for instance, an audience member was upset by the female computer's behavior. Another decided the laptops were brother and sister. One of Dorsen's collaborators even said the chatbots reminded him of his grandfather.

"There's this creativity in the listener," Dorsen says. "You know that the text you're reading is meaningless. You know it's computer generated. You know that there is no person, mind, soul, body, or whatever behind it, but still, we as listeners create. We create sense. We create meaning."

This creativity challenges the suggestion that language is pointless. "I think it's nice to get an opportunity to see what grooves your mind wants to fall into," Dorsen says. "You start to become really aware of the patterns you make.'Oh, that's so funny that I'm thinking so much about character and that my mind is working like that. Why am I projecting character?'"

Ultimately, Dorsen is less interested in endorsing an interpretation of the show than in getting us to ask questions. "One of the big centers of the whole piece is that it destroys this dichotomy between what's 'natural' and what's 'artificial,'" she says. "That's something that I would always like to help destroy."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor