An intimate two-hander at Theatre N16, AI Love You presents both sides of a captivating argument surrounding artificial intelligence and agency. The concept is compelling, the writing is intellectually stimulating, and even if there are executional flaws, it’s definitely worth a watch.
Humanity’s love-hate relationship with technology, and perpetual uncertainty as to whether robots are the future or signal the end of it, is always ripe for artistic exploration. A collective and unspoken fear that technology could one day replace us entirely (as labourers, lovers, etc) perhaps explains why Hollywood normally defaults to treating artificial intelligence with hysteria (Wall-E and R2D2 being the only mainstream exceptions).
AI Love You, an intimate two-hander at Theatre N16 is Balham, is therefore supremely refreshing: tackling the well-trodden subject of AI but progressing the conversation on to new (and – in my opinion – far more interesting) directions than whether or not it should simply exist. Melanie Anne Ball’s bold writing acknowledges that AI is coming whether we like it or not (heck, it has arrived, meet Sophia) – and duly moves the goal-posts to bring the concept of ‘agency’ into the discussion.
As robots get savvier at both detecting and emulating ‘real’ human emotion, and increasingly have the capacity to make decisions for themselves based on logic and algorithms alone, the piece probes the extent to which sophisticated robots should be able to determine their own futures. April (AI) is sophisticated enough to recognise that she is what Adam (human) wants, but not what he needs. Does she therefore have the right to euthanasia, having electronically and logically calculated all possible outcomes and reached the conclusion that it is in the ultimate interests of her owner?
Clever and meaty food-for-thought, and where AI Love You shines: conceptually. The piece clearly stems from ample research and a genuine ambition to move the conversation on, and Heart to Heart Theatre should absolutely be commended for that. The writing is a little guilty of prioritising intellectual discussion over genuine ‘drama’ or well-rounded characters though; both Adam and April exist much more as vehicles to present the two sides of the debate than three-dimensional characters you relate or truly emphasise with. And although the chemistry between the characters is believable enough, it is in the piece’s best interests to significantly flesh out the characterisation of Adam in particular.
Fine-tuning the character would allow the piece to be as dialectic as it sets out to be. I’m not sure I’d go as far as calling it ‘interactive’, because (aside from two short Q&A segments – which also require more forward-planning, the actors improvised responses were notably less eloquent and assured than the rest of the writing) audience decisions really just affect the structuring rather than the content. At the moment though, the argument presented is a little too one-sided (swaying in the favour of the AI, interestingly) for the audience to be truly split in its opinion. It’s a nice (and again, refreshing) perspective to present the AI character in a far more sympathetic light than her male human counterpart (portrayed as almost manically controlling, and therefore difficult to have much empathy for), but the resounding audience opinion – each and every time they were asked to vote – stayed almost unanimously in her favour, to the detriment of dramatic tension.
(Just as a side-point, the writing could do with quickly – or more clearly, if I missed a line – establishing why April’s character needed to seek approval from the ‘Ethical Steering Committee’ in order to end her life in the first place. Is she not a sophisticated enough being to find a way to commit suicide on the sly? Lol).
All that being said, Eve Ponsonby and Peter Dewhurst both offer impressive, confident and nuanced performances, Joe Ball’s staging is boldly stark and well-paced – and the sound design (uncredited on the website) deserves a mention for instilling the piece with a slickness superior to what you’d expect for a small fringe production.