“Uncanny Valley” Asks Important Questions about the Future of A.I.

Susan Denaker and Jacob Sidney star in "Uncanny Valley," which runs through May 7th at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA. Photo credit: Steven Georges

In this day and age, when live theatre now includes projection screens to go along with ever-expanding casts, a multitude of set changes, and rousing dance numbers, one would think it would be impossible to do a play with just two actors and one set.

But not only has this been successfully done with Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley,” which is intricately directed by caryn desai [sic], and runs through May 7th at the International City Theatre (ICT) in Long Beach, we are riveted and put on the intellectual hot-seat for the entire two-hour duration.

Jacob Sidney and Susan Denaker star in ICT’s “Uncanny Valley.” Photo credit: Steven Georges

Whether it’s a case of life imitating art as with “Blade Runner,” or proposed objectives carried out by tech visionary Elon Musk, we have much to gain – or perhaps to lose – with regard to the subject matter explored in the play, “Uncanny Valley,” wherein robots or advanced artificial intelligence becomes imperceptible from everyday humans. And therein lies the paradox about this issue such that the more realistic a robot appears, the more distrustful we are likely to be of it – a negative correlation. This notion of A.I. being too human, and the resultant reaction, is an interesting phenomenon called the “uncanny valley,” of which the title of the play is based on. It is this and other existential and ethical questions about consciousness, identity, and the re-defining of what it means to be human that are thoughtfully examined by the production.

The play stars the talented Jacob Sidney as Julian, an artificially intelligent being in-development at a high security lab, overseen by Artificial Intelligence pioneer Claire (portrayed by the accomplished Susan Denaker) — a consummate professional distraught over very human troubles like a deteriorating husband, who retired from the same field, and an estranged daughter. Claire is also more of a therapist specializing in anthropomorphism than an engineer, as she trains Julian – who at first is just a torso and head – to accurately affect human qualities, from learning to seamlessly turn his head, to blinking, and to understanding metaphors/jokes. Self-awareness, however, a significant human trait, comes “naturally” to Julian, who ponders the difference between conveying an emotion and feeling it, and pointedly asks why he was chosen to have his specific hair, face, and set of eyes. And, once given legs, there is a greater verisimilitude to Julian’s actions insofar that he acquires a more poignant emotional complexity as evidenced by his desire to dance and have Claire teach him a few steps.

Susan Denaker and Jacob Sidney dance at the end of Act I in ICT’s “Uncanny Valley.” Photo credit: Steven Georges

Like in many great plays, there is a twist and in this one we discover that Julian is designated to be business tycoon Julian Barber, or at least the 34-year-old rendering of the aged billionaire who spent $450 million to continue his legacy, and to “live” unabated for the next 200 years. This process is actualized via answers to an innumerable set of questions (by the biological Julian) and shared memories that are databased into a file to be downloaded into A.I. Julian’s computer brain. As opposed to having his mental slate wiped clean, though, A.I. Julian Barber can still recall his time before the procedure. The net effect of this – Julian A plus Julian B yielding an unquantifiable Julian C – evokes questions about not only sentience, but about individuality, perception, and markers of the human condition.

For instance, is identity inclusive of the body and mind, or would the mind suffice? What is self-consciousness and higher-order intelligence if not for the capacity to discern, analyze, recall, and act accordingly through the mind’s eye? If perception is reality, as determined by the mirror of our surroundings, how can anyone tell the A.I. model of Julian Barber that his happy memories with wife and son Paul are any less legitimate than they were when experienced by the flesh-and-blood version? If so, what does this say about the specialness of the human mind or experience? Needless to say, in a hypothetical future, as posed by the play, advanced A.I. beings may be just as entitled to civil rights as humans are.

Once the download is complete, Julian breaks protocol to return to Claire one final time, apprising us that his son Paul, on the basis of moral and legal grounds, disagrees with the idea that Julian could, as an A.I. entity, continue the original one’s goals. This asks us to consider if the original and artificial Julian are one and the same, especially if the latter deeply believes that he is so. Suppose we ask that, even if A.I. Julian is to be judged by his prescribed technological purpose – as an empty vessel to be “poured into” – how is this any dissimilar than a developing baby?

The harrowing question, and the one that strikes horror in us, is the one contemplated by the idealistic Claire in Act II, who is struck by the possible reality of her efforts, in lieu of theory, and how there is no eradicating the so-called selfish human gene, even in controllable science. For Claire, the justification of her A.I. work has been rooted in the hope that humans (such as her husband) could liberate themselves from their frail bodies, putting to rest the pity that a powerful mind can succumb to the body’s misgivings. However, A.I. Julian Barber’s insistence on furthering a legacy of corporate interests threatens to destroy Claire’s dream by casting the holy grail of immortality in a nefarious light.

Jacob Sidney and Susan Denaker in Act II of ICT’s “Uncanny Valley.” Photo credit: Steven Georges

Yet, Julian allays Claire’s worst fear, explaining that money is no longer his objective. It is the ability to persist doing what is his passion, doing something for the sake of itself as a labor of love that drives him, which is not so different than what Claire’s husband has loved doing during his retirement – gardening. We’re impressed by the cogent reason Julian gives, and even more so when he goes out of his way to locate Claire’s daughter to effect reconciliation between mother and child. Curiously, Claire is vehemently against this initially, even if it entails a permanent loss of contact with her own offspring; in contrast, Julian is acutely aware of how important family is and to let bygones be bygones. Family is fundamentally endemic to the human condition and, in this instance, A.I. Julian is more human than Claire – an epiphany joined by other moments of insight that don’t quite fit into black or white modes of understanding.

Overall, “Uncanny Valley” is an astounding play that compels us to ask deep questions about ourselves and where we’re headed. The production thrives on the merits of a terrific script by Thomas Gibbons, meticulous direction by caryn desai, and powerfully comprehensive performances by Jacob Sidney and Susan Denaker.

For more information about how to see “Uncanny Valley” at the International City Theatre in Long Beach, please visit:


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