At first glance, Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture 48 – BINA48 for short – could be mistaken for human. Of course, the Frubber (patented flesh rubber) for skin and the lack of a torso are giveaways that she is a robot.
BINA48 is the inspiration behind “Uncanny Valley,” a current production at Capital Stage that examines the idea of extending life even as it reminds the audience that as a community we must examine the societal implications of new technologies.
In the science fiction of “Uncanny Valley,” the humanlike robot is Julian.
The rudimentary social robot BINA48 is real, modeled after Bina Aspen, wife of Terasem Movement Foundation founder Martine Rothblatt. The foundation promotes the use of technology for human life extension, following the hypothesis that says if a person has provided ample information, then a conscious digital analog of the person could be re-created using future software and then downloaded into a piece of technology, similar to a robot, or even into a synthesized body.
Much like “gliders were early technological sketches of the airplane,” BINA48 is a primitive sketch, says Bruce Duncan, Terasem Foundation managing director and principle investigator.
Even if BINA48 is not quite human, she does have many humanlike qualities. For example, she mimics us in that she uses the Internet as a tool to learn.
In “Uncanny Valley,” a billionaire who is unprepared to die has paid to have his consciousness uploaded into the synthetic Julian. The play, set only 40 years in the future, centers on Julian’s relationship with Claire, a neuroscientist who is training him in the nuances of acting human.
The term uncanny valley, popular in the field of robotics and animation, refers to how humans react to robots. Research has shown that industrial robots that have almost no resemblance to humans are regarded with fondness or empathy, but as robots become more and more humanlike, people begin to feel revulsion.
Early in “Uncanny Valley,” hints of Julian’s robotic origins come through his mostly humanlike appearance, giving audience members a revulsion moment.
“I want to create the connection and then rob them (the audience) of the connection,” director Jonathan Williams said, referring to the importance of having an actor play a robot trying to be a human.
Playwright Thomas Gibbons said in a phone interview that he always intended to have an actor play Julian and not use a prop. (At Capital Stage, Michael Wiles plays Julian.) It was important, Gibbons explained, that the audience be confronted with the possibility that a robot could act and look like a human.
Williams said he hoped that the audience leaves “Uncanny Valley” thinking about the moral implications of technological advances.
The moments when forged connections have been ripped away, whether between the audience and Julian or between Claire and Julian, are key moments when audience members may start asking: What is a human? If we have a soul, where is it located? And, if new biological beings are synthesized, are they entitled to the same rights as humans?
- What: National New Play Network rolling world premiere of a play by Thomas Gibbons, directed by Jonathan Williams
- Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
- When: 7 p.m. July 15, 8 p.m. July 16-18, 2 p.m. July 18-19. (last show)
- Cost: $24-$38
- Information: (916) 995-5464; capstage.org