Are Robot Actors Stealing Our Jobs?

image credit: Jeremy Daniel


It can be a scary word. Even as technology becomes more entrenched in modern life, many people minimize their interactions with it or even avoid it altogether. Digital technology is complicated and hard to understand, new and improved models are being released more quickly than we can consume them, and I still can’t figure out how to use the QC Wi-Fi. However, for many, technology has become an indispensable tool, and our relationship to our phones and computers can be just as personal as our friendships in the physical world.

Statistically speaking, half of all human interaction on Earth involves avoiding awkward eye contact with the stranger sitting next to you (image credit: Jeremy Daniel).

So what happens when a piece of technology literally becomes our companion?

That’s just what happens in the new play After the Blast by Zoe Kazan, which opened October 23rd at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. Kazan’s sci-fi play is set in the near future after a global disaster leaves the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. Humans use “sim,” a form of virtual reality, in order to experience what the world looked like before the apocalypse. Anna, who lives in an underground apartment with her husband, refuses to sim like everyone else and spends most of her time alone in the apartment. She’s also unable to have a baby, because the government requires citizens to pass a mental health check before procreating. This probably isn’t helping Anna with her loneliness, depression and suicidal tendencies. One reviewer praised After the Blast for its particularly nuanced representation of mental illness.

However, people in the future still struggle with how to combat depression. Anna’s husband, Oliver, looking for a quick solution to Anna’s ennui, decides to get her a pet – which is, you guessed it, a robot. Anna names the robot Arthur and quickly begins to form a relationship with it, as she teaches Arthur about what it means to be human.

By the way, since we’re talking about a play, did I mention that Arthur (and this includes the actor playing Arthur) is a robot? While more articles have been written about how cute Arthur is rather than the technology behind him, the arrival of a stage play where a human actor interacts with a robot actor has been a long time coming.

The word “robot” actually comes from theatre: Czech science fiction writer Karel Čapek introduced the word “robot” in his 1920 play R.U.R., although Čapek’s conception of the word was slightly different than ours. While our modern association with “robot” tends to connote metal and electricity, the robots in R.U.R. were artificially-created organic clones of existing humans. However, their purpose is basically the same: to reduce production costs and provide free labor. It should also be said that the word “robot” derives from the Czech word “robota” – meaning “forced laborer.” If you feel bad about humans enslaving robots, don’t worry: the rational, cold-blooded robots in R.U.R. eventually rise up and overthrow humanity, brutally murdering the entire global population by the end of the play.

The murderous robots in “R.U.R.” (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

However, the robots in R.U.R. (which premiered on Broadway on 1922) were played by human actors. After the Blast is one of the rare examples in theatre history where an actual robot has had a significant acting role onstage. Although robots are being used more frequently in theatre than ever before, these are often small experiments with miniature robots who have secondary roles to human actors. Even the movie industry has been slow to utilize actual robots, despite sci-fi films like The Terminator and Blade Runner achieving mainstream success and making a lasting impact on popular culture. The incredibly lifelike robot Sonny in the blockbuster film I, Robot was made using motion capture, CGI, and a puppet. Even Samantha from the film Her (which shares some thematic similarities with After the Blast) is just Black Widow inside of a sound booth.

Scarlett Johansson (ScarJo), a notorious robot impersonator (image credit: Flickr)

Using robot actors in plays can be difficult, especially when the pertinent technology is not yet advanced enough for robot actors to be convincing for a theatre-going audience. Consequently, most examples of robot actors being used in theatre have seemed like no more than publicity stunts. An English theatre group recently performed a play using a preprogrammed “robo-thespian” that accepts cues from a laptop. The Japan Society’s production of the short play Sayonara used a extremely lifelike android actor named Geminoid F, who has become something of a minor celebrity in Japan. Sayonara proved so popular that it was turned into a feature film, although the only good thing that could be said for Geminoid F’s acting was that it was just as bad as her co-star’s. Beyond the novelty of seeing robots onstage, robot actors have proven to be something of a letdown for viewers interested in the performance of drama.

However, this doesn’t mean that there will never be a stage-ready robo-thespian. If the time comes where robots have their own place onstage, should human actors be afraid? Drama is one of the few professional fields that expects little competition as businesses turn to automation to replace jobs. But as robots become more intelligent, humanoid, and competitive, the dystopic future that Čapek feared in R.U.R. may become a reality. What if robot actors start to demand the same rights as human actors?

As it turns out, the first step toward the robot apocalypse has already been taken: in 2015, the ABB IRB 2400 robot applied for membership into the Screen Actors Guild.

Now, it’s hard to deny that the ARB IRB 2400 robot isn’t talented: it garnered some notoriety for projecting an extremely terrifying hologram during a dance sequence on America’s Got Talent. And it comes from a showbiz family: a related model, the IRB 120, is a beloved minor character seen in the Iron Man films. But most would argue that the IRB 2400 isn’t really an “actor,” just a fancy lighting instrument/set piece. Still, a SAG membership promises health care and a pension – things a machine presumably has no use for. It’s also not unprecedented: SICO, a robot seen in a bizarre birthday party scene from Rocky IV, is already the first non-human member of the Screen Actors Guild.

SICO, delivering a beer and paving the way for future robot actors.

But SICO needs to be operated and programmed by a human. The same likely goes for the IRB 2400, Geminoid F, and even After the Blast‘s Arthur. Robots that are autonomous – that is, they can operate without human assistance – are a long way from making it to the stage on their own. So theatre actors (and the rest of humanity) can rest easy with the knowledge that robots will not be replacing us anytime soon.

Scratch that – Saudi Arabia officially granted a robot citizenship last month, which means that robots have more legal rights than Saudi Arabian women. Let the robot apocalypse begin.

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