by Joshua Chamberlain

There were robots at the Purple Rose on Thursday night.

While this may sound like a scene from a Sci-Fi movie, it was Chelsea’s local theatre playing host to an enhanced performance of the world premier play, Smart Love, by Brian Letscher. With its probing look into the development of Artificial Intelligence, Smart Love has sparked both conversation and engagement within the community. The event included a presentation by the Chelsea Middle School’s Robotics Team and a 3-D printing demonstration, and featured a discussion following the performance that included professors of theology, psychology, computer science, and engineering.

Playwright Brian Letscher began the discussion by describing his inspiration for Smart Love: “I just became fascinated with the idea of what this was going to do to us…the idea of AI, the technology, the concept, and then how it may change our world.” Letscher was able to capture this in the struggle of a young man coping with his father’s death, something Dr. Robert Pasick, an organizational psychologist and lecturer, found most impactful.

“I’m expecting a play about artificial intelligence,” he told Letscher. “I’m watching the play and it’s a great play about emotion, it’s a play about grief. Was your intention to write about artificial intelligence or a very moving play about grief?”

Letscher smiled and said, “Nobody goes to the theatre to see an essay about artificial intelligence.”

While this may be the case, Smart Love has sparked numerous questions regarding the application of technology in daily life and what potential consequences may ensue. Some panelists pondered the implications of social media on our interactions with one another. Dr. Pasick asserted, “human interaction is really hard,” and social media is often used as a means of hiding from one another. However, Dr. Satinder Singh Baveja, professor of computer science & engineering and director of UM’s AI Lab, countered by asking, “Is it so different now than it used to be? People would watch TV instead of talking to other people, or listen to the radio, or work on their cars.”

Another intriguing question posed during the discussion: can a machine have a soul? Ronney B. Mourad, professor of theology at Albion College, alluded that such a question may simply seek to answer whether a machine can possess consciousness. “There are different notions of the soul in different traditions, but it’s usually associated with the conscious mental state of the person.”

Purple Rose actor David Bendena, who plays Benji in Smart Love, also voiced his thoughts, pondering if his character had given a soul to the artificially intelligent being he creates: “The very question of that is something Benji has the answer to, that there is zero empirical evidence that we have a soul. There’s no science in the soul.”

In a similar fashion, Dr. Baveja insisted that asking if a machine can possess a soul isn’t the right question. The real question, he said was, “Can a machine appreciate a beautiful flower?” And according to Dr. Baveja, the answer is a resounding, “yes.”

The panelists did agree that there is much to hope for as technology continues to progress.  “Most technologies are enhancing human capabilities,” Professor Mourad said. “They’re extending the scope of the choices we can make.” Josh Nichols, director of the Spring Arbor University CrossBrain Project, concurred, emphasizing the impacts on learning: “Everyone’s going to have a quality education. Everyone. It won’t matter where you are.”

This sentiment was echoed in one of the evening’s most powerful moments, when moderator Bart Bund described an encounter with a middle school student during the robotics demonstration prior to the performance. “What is AI?” Bund asked the student, who replied, “It’s the future…”

Smart Love continues its run on the Purple Rose stage through March 4th, with tickets available at purplerosetheatre.org or (734)-433-7673. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this groundbreaking production and join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #SmartLovePRTC.

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