January 17, 2019 3:14 pm
Updated: January 18, 2019 10:21 pm

Artificial intelligence takes over Edmonton improv show at Citadel

Improv is a challenging genre on its own, but now a show at the Citadel adds another unpredictable variable to the mix: artificial intelligence.

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Under normal circumstances, improv actors have to adapt to audience interaction and the unscripted choices of fellow performers. Now imagine adding another variable to the mix: direction from artificial intelligence.

Improbotics, a show running at the Citadel over the next three Saturdays, does just that.

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“In Improbotics, the A.I. takes over the show and we see an improv show as desired by an artificial intelligence,” director Kory Mathewson said. “The A.I. kind of comes up with concepts for different games and formats. It tries to mess around with the humans.

“It puts them in precarious positions and then we get to see the humans fight and struggle and succeed in the end.”

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“We don’t know what we’re going to get any given day from the audience and we certainly don’t know what we’re going to get from the A.I.,” fellow performer Julian Faid said.

To prepare the A.I., Mathewson had it download and read every improv game ever written.

“Then I said, ‘OK, now generate your own.’ One of the games it generated is: What happens if answers have to come before questions, like Jeopardy?”

Another game has the actors improvise a live song using lines from love songs and other genres.

“A.I. was generating lines for our musician [Joel Crichton] to sing in a song and it was generating some really weird stuff,” Mathewson said. “It was beautiful to see this love song and then all of a sudden, it’s pulling in these weird ideas and the musician is happily going along with it, making it work.”

WATCH BELOW: The University of Alberta is a global leader in artificial intelligence. Check out some of the work being done, including a great demo from this robot named Blueberry. (March 23, 2017)

In addition to being a Rapid Fire Theatre performer, Mathewson is finishing his PhD in computer science-machine learning at the University of Alberta.

“He is also obviously a lover of improv,” Faid said. “So he’s trying to combine the two things he loves most.”

Blueberry and Raspberry, two AI-enabled robots at the University of Alberta. Sept. 27, 2018.

Emily Mertz, Global News

Mathewson has combined his two passions before. A.I.-enabled robots took the stage alongside improv actors during the 2018 Edmonton Fringe Festival.

READ MORE: Artificial intelligence put to the test during Edmonton Fringe Festival show

The show at the Citadel doesn’t use robots but the artificial intelligence still plays a significant role.

“The A.I. takes over the whole theatre experience,” Mathewson said. “You can hear the A.I.’s voice over the speakers, you can see an embodiment of the A.I. on the screen, there are computers on the stage so you can get some different signals, and we have headsets that some of the actors are wearing so the A.I. can whisper different things to those actors.”

“This show is the first of its kind,” Faid added, “combining machine learning and artificial intelligence with the world of improv.”

WATCH BELOW: What happens when you combine artificial intelligence with improv comedy? A computer science team wanted to find out so they used the Fringe Festival. Emily Mertz reports. (Sept. 28, 2018)

Mathewson insists the whole process has been an incredible team effort — from technical contributions from Sweden, London, New York and San Francisco, to brainstorming performance ideas with other artists.

“I’ve generated these bots I don’t really know what they’re useful for but then I get into a room with a bunch of genius improvisers and they say, ‘We could use it for this or this or this,’ and then it’s like, ‘Yes! Exactly!’

“It’s like you’ve made a new instrument and now all these musicians are playing with that instrument. Or you made a new colour and all these painters are like, ‘I want to try that colour in this type of painting.'”

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Improbotics is also a huge collaboration with the live audience. In addition to interacting with guests in the traditional improv fashion, this show ups the ante.

“We put a phone number up on the screen and then all of the audience members can start chatting,” Mathewson explained. “They start these text conversations with a chatbot … and then we use some of the lines from their conversations in the scene that the A.I. is then delivering. It’s this beautiful moment of the audience is having a conversation with a chatbot and some of those lines are making their way into the performance.

“We’re redefining how that audience-performer interaction happens using some new technology.”

“Improv is all about breaking barriers and innovating. So what I wanted to do was bring a lot of innovative ideas, see which ones stick, see which ones resonate with audiences, and see how we can redefine the art form.”

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The show is performed in two acts. The first half includes games and formats that introduce the audience to the A.I. technology.

“In the second half, we do a Turing test,” Mathewson said. “We kind of see if the audience can tell the difference between human improvisers and A.I.-based improvisers. That’s a really fun part of the show because in the last show we did, it was about split. The audience couldn’t quite tell who was the human and who was the A.I.”

For more information on Improbotics at Zeidler Hall at the Citadel Theatre and to buy tickets, click here.

WATCH BELOW: A computer designed by IBM is making some remarkable strides in artificial intelligence. It’s called “Project Debater,” and it’s programmed to debate humans on real-life topics. Reid Fiest reports (June 19, 2018) 

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