Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Feast for the Philosophically Famished: Uncanny Valley at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Barbara Kingsley and Alex Podulke in UNCANNY VALLEY.  Photo by Seth Freeman.
Although Julian Barber is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, he still harbors visions of his own immortality.  Not that he thinks that his emaciated 76 year old body might yet be salvaged – that, of course, would be quite impossible.  No, it is not his body that concerns him for he realizes that his “self” is something quite other than his body - just as we all do when thinking about our own “selves.”  The religious among us may think of our “selves” as our “souls” but even the most scientifically-inclined, secular non-believers recognize that we are “something” more than the mere sum of our body parts.  After all, at least in theory, if we were to replace all of our limbs and organs with prosthetics, wouldn’t we still be “us” -  if only we could retain the “essence” of who we are (however we might define that): our memories, our behavioral patterns, our emotional states, our intellects, our personality traits – what we might refer to as our very “consciousness”?

It all sounds quite far-fetched but that’s where Mr. Barber has a big advantage over the rest of us: he’s a billionaire and is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in pursuit of his improbable dream.  And that is precisely what he does in Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan.

Inspired by the supposedly “sentient” robot BINA48 commissioned by Martine Rothblatt and created by Hanson Robotics in 2007, and billed as “a modern-day Frankenstein tale,” the play revolves around Mr. Barber’s contracting with a highly advanced robotics company to create a perfect simulation (in physical appearance) of himself when he was 34 years old – a thoroughly lifelike android into which he could download his “consciousness” (whatever that might entail), thereby achieving the immortality for which he yearns (or at least another couple of hundred years of life).  The android turns out to be Julian (Alex Podulke) whom we first encounter onstage as nothing more than a head and torso but to which are sequentially attached first one arm and then the other and then the legs, until he constitutes a remarkably complete replica of Mr. Barber’s younger self - even if only in physical appearance.

But it is one thing to build an android that looks very much like a particular human being and that can simulate a host of human actions including seeing, hearing, walking, talking, remembering, analyzing, recognizing, and so on.  It is quite another to actually breathe life into that creation which is where Claire (Barbara Kingsley), the play’s updated version of Dr. Frankenstein, comes in.  Claire is the 70 year old brilliant neuroscientist whose job it is to teach Julian how to really be human, how to smile, how to laugh, how to express surprise - in short, as Claire herself put it, how to pass “a Turing test of the emotions.”

The play has everything one might expect from an updated version of the Frankenstein legend including the creation of the “monster” itself (Julian), the scientist who brings it to life (Claire), and allusions to the “villagers…gathering with torches and pitchforks” to destroy that which they cannot comprehend.  But it really is a great deal more than that.  Indeed, it is truly a feast for the philosophically famished.  It touches on issues ranging from the philosophy of science to the philosophy of mind, from epistemology to metaphysical questions regarding the identity of the self, from ethics to the meaning and purpose of life itself.

Ultimately, the play provides us with no answers but it raises the most important questions and it articulates them both intelligently and entertainingly.  Once Claire has taught Julian to smile, to laugh, to express surprise, in short, to pass an emotional Turing test, is he really conscious or aware or intelligent or human?  Or is it all nothing but a facade?  And if it is nothing but a simulation, why should we believe that we humans are doing anything different?  Are we ourselves anything more than a set of algorithms and electrical synapses?  Alan Turing would argue that passing a Turing test would, ipso facto, constitute evidence of true artificial intelligence.  But John Searle (he of the Chinese room) surely would disagree.

Once Julian has been completely assembled and Claire has taught him all she can, but before Julian Barber’s “consciousness” has been downloaded into him, we can think of him as “Julian A”.  And when Julian Barber’s “consciousness” has been downloaded, we can think of him as “Julian B”.  But then what has become of “Julian A”?  Or is he now “Julian C” – a composite of “Julian A” and Julian B”?  And what are the implications of all that for you and me?  Are we the same people we were ten or twenty years ago?  If we are, how can we explain how different we seem today?  And if not, when did we change – and what does it even mean to be “me, myself” (or “you, yourself”) anyway? 

We learn, too, in the play, of Claire’s husband, Paul (who we never actually get to meet), who is in the early stages of dementia, and of her daughter, Rebecca (who we also never meet), who was once a lovely, vibrant girl, but from whom Claire is now completely estranged.  Are they the same people they were decades ago?  We know that matter retains its continuity over time (Rebecca proved that for herself when she was just a little girl by pouring water from a tall narrow container into a short wide one and back again).   But much as we tend to believe similarly in the continuity of self, is that necessarily the case?
   
And then there is Julian’s son, Paul (who also never actually shows up in the play), who denies that the Julian android is his father in any sense and who claims that his real father abused him as a child.  But did he, and how would we even know?  Julian has no recollection of such abuse but perhaps he simply deleted such memories from his download.  And if he has no memory of those events, in what sense was he (the he of today, that is) truly a participant in them, if we define him in terms of his memories?

Alex Podulke is superb as Julian, expressing the evolution of a machine into a human being and Barbara Kingsley is equally impressive as the brilliant scientist, overwhelmed by the demands of her profession and her marriage and, for whatever reason, largely in denial regarding her relationship with her daughter.  In sum, this is an extremely thought-provoking play, beautifully performed, finely designed and directed, and certainly well worth seeing.

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