There are so many people involved in the world of Improbotics and it is not just the UK – it is actually international and is gradually expanding over time. Today we talk to Piotr about his partnership with Kory in Canada which lead to Improbotics being founded and the teams in Sweden and Belgium.
How did you meet Kory?
Kory and I, living on two different continents — he is in Edmonton, Canada, North America, and I in London, UK, Europe, we met online in May 2016.
In Spring 2016, I was coding and testing my AI improv partner, an artificial intelligence called A.L.Ex (as in Artificial Language Experiment), programming it and training it on the dialogue from 100,000 films. Then John Agapiou told me that an improviser called Kory Mathewson did a short solo AI improv show at the Rapid Fire Theatre Bonfire in April 2016, using a simpler chatbot. Kory blogged about his project and performance, about what worked and what did not, and was ready to shelve the project and move on to something different.
After reading Kory’s blog post, my mind was racing through a lot of emotions and I sent Kory an email, telling him about what I had been working on. He always says it is the longest email he ever received, clocking in at 5000 words (then, as we have been talking about in public, it became 10000, then 20000, now it is apparently 29000 words). Kory replied, jumped on a plane to London (OK, he was passing through London to go to an improv workshop in Slovenia) and we spent a whole afternoon chatting about this project. And this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We adopted A.L.Ex and the rest is history.
P.S.: that email was actually only 733 words.
You do shows with each other on different continents – how does this work?
Simple! We connect remotely in a video conference, exactly like people from two remote offices or labs, who are collaborating on a project while living in different countries. But instead of some dull conference rooms… the video conference happens in a theatre, with live audiences watching. Think of that serious BBC interview disrupted by those two adorable kids and their panicked mother, while the whole planet watches in awe.
In some afternoon or evening shows we did in Europe, Kory would connect (in the middle of the afternoon, or sometimes in the early morning) from his flat in Edmonton or somewhere in North America. Doing a live improv show in London in front of an audience, without leaving one’s own kitchen, or while recovering from a trek through the Canadian Rockies, does sound quite fun! At other times, I connected… at 4am, to join Kory at a performance in Edmonton.
Once, at UK ImproFest 2017, we did a show in TWO THEATRES simultaneously. Tristan Bates Theatre in London and Curious Comedy Theater in Portland, Oregon. With TWO AUDIENCES. And with TWO ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCES that, at some point of the show, connected. There was one little problem: the usual 8 hour time difference between GMT and PST became 7 hours. It is a bit of a long story, but to make things short, Kory was chased down the stage by an angry bridezilla from a wedding rehearsal.
Let’s talk about Sweden – how did they get involved in the Improbotics world?
It all started with Jenny Elfving and her husband Tommy Rydling, two gifted and naturalistic improvisers who live in Sweden. Jenny performs with Dramatiska, Hybris, and her projects include improvised Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen or Roy Andersson. So, Jenny read the audition notice I posted around Christmas 2017… and flew from Stockholm for the Improbotics audition. I was mind-blown by her skills and dedication, and yes and-ed them with “Would you like to start an Improbotics team in Stockholm?”. Jenny continued to fly in for the rehearsals, leading up to the Improbotics première at the Nursery Theatre in March 2018. And then acting as the CEO of Improbotics AB Sweden, Jenny took the project, with Tommy, to Stockholm, recruited a talented team and premièred an Improbotics AB show in July 2018.
Improbotics is both a concept and a lot of technology: we rely on an artificial intelligence chatbot, running on laptops on the stage. So we found a way for the Stockholm team to be able to use that AI from their computers in Stockholm, and for them to get the same robot as we have in London: A.L.Ex’s cousin! We do what actual tech companies do: we share code and ideas, hopes and frustrations, mostly online — via chat and Skype. We debug the software together (as in: I write code and they realise I broke something!). We make it work!
We also meet regularly at gigs and festival. For instance, we had a “mixer” London and Stockholm troupe perform at the Impro Amsterdam and Göteborg Improfest shows. Jenny came many times to perform in London, like in Rosetta Code, where she did an improvised scene in Swedish and Arabic with Marouen. I am actually going to guest their Swedish Improfest show on 6 March 2020 in Uppsala.
And we cannot talk about Sweden without talking about Belgium: a few months ago, the brilliant Ben Verhoeven, who co-founded Swaajp Improtheater in Antwerp and ImproBubble in Brussels, created Improbotics Flanders, with another supremely talented cast! We met Ben right after our Impro Amsterdam show in January 2019; he guested our Brighton Fringe show in May, then Kory, Jenny, Ben and I performed together at the Vlaamse Impromarathon in June, and he will have had his own première in February 2020.
Technology is constantly updating – how does this affect the content that you have to bring to an AI improv show?
We have updated our tech! We use now a much better AI chatbot, that relies on a giant neural network language model recently published by OpenAI and open-sourced, which we fine-tuned on the dialogue from films, like we were doing before. One improvement was that our chatbot became good at reincorporating specific facts (rather than just generate plausible sentences). That neural network was, at the time of its release, judged by its creators to be too dangerous to release because of the risk of misuse (for example, to mass-produce fake news or fake articles in the style of a specific writer). As you can imagine, that fear was itself controversial (after all, humans are already pretty good at bullsh*ting and lying, without the need of AI).
So our show, which also deals with technology and its impact on society, made a quick mention to this. We try to both divert and enlighten about the wonders and perils of these AI tools.
In modern day society we are becoming more and more detached from everyday life – automated shopping areas, phones, etc – do you think that bringing technology into a theatre environment detaches the personal experience for the audience?
The essence of our show is the reappropriation of technology for creative purpose.
When we started improvising, solo, with a machine, Kory and I were wondering how this AI chatbot — spewing nonsense, embodied by a rigid robot — could unsettle us, challenge our capacity to justify what is going on and enable an interesting game between us and our creation. We could have tried to improvise with a dog, a teddy bear or a tamagotchi, but building a sophisticated AI that can produce lines of dialogue had some extra dimensions.
We then decided to include the human back into the loop, by bringing guest improvisers or random audience members to operate the AI, to say the lines generated by the AI, to perform with us on the stage. And to improvise together, separated by distance, bridged by a Skype connection. The improv became so much better.
Then we realised that the beauty of what the AI generated was the absurdity of the dialogue. Instead of letting a robot and a robotic voice do the talking, we established an improv troupe, Improbotics, who took ownership of the robot, found brilliant new ways to interact with it, and we have devised together new games.
What is the future of AI and improv, will we see augmented reality and the virtual world integrated more into this format if so how would you like to see it?
Virtual reality could be awesome! One thing that could be done would be to take a troupe of human improvisers into a journey in a VR world, interacting with AI avatars.
Another theme that excites, and that does not necessarily require VR, is automated translation. We started experimenting with that at our show Rosetta Code, which we premièred at the Voilà Europe festival at the Rich Mix London in November 2019. Imagine improvisers speaking different languages and able to understand one another, thanks to technology (or to get totally and hilariously confused by mistranslation). This is the premise of our new line of shows.
More next week….
Improbotics are headlining our next Phoenix Remix Live! on March the 10th! To reserve tickets then click the image below.