White Bear Theatre, London – until 30 September 2017
“How do you define consciousness?” … The world of artificial intelligence may feel like the realm of sci-fi but in reality is closer than we think, the next frontier in the progression of scientific knowledge. And Ian Dixon Potter‘s new play The Test shows the human race right at the point of breaching it, as ambitious scientist Dora and eager hacker Josh combine forces to harness the global computing power of the web in order to create ‘Mother’, the first truly conscious AI. What could possibly go wrong…?!
It is a formidable concept to explore in an hour of fringe theatre and to set up this world of advanced science and technology, Dixon Potter is caught between two stools, particularly in the opening scenes. Either characters rattle off complex ideas which threaten to fly over our heads, or they dumb down too much – the dictionary definition of the Turing Test is a case in point, or lines like ‘I need you to hijack the internet’ which recall nothing so much as this brilliant bit of comedy.
The Test is much stronger when it tackles the more ephemeral issues around human nature and ethics, the value we place on each other, the tolerance needed to make a diverse world prosper. There’s a neat suggestion of karmic comeuppance as Dora’s dismissiveness towards those less scientifically advanced is played back on her tenfold, as the cold logic used to create Mother wends its way to its inevitable endgame. It is the human challenges rather than the technological that prove more affecting.
Janet A Cantrill-Smith‘s design is faced with the task of conjuring sci-fi level aesthetic on a pub theatre budget and it does manage this aurally – the heavily processed, disembodied voice of Mother (provided by Zara Banks) proving superbly disquieting. Visually, it’s not quite as effective with shadows constantly blighting the data projector used to display the screensaver-like effect used here.
Natasha Killam‘s Dora does portray the zealous fervour of a pioneer well, unable (or unwilling) to calculate how reckless her actions have been as it is all in the name of what she considers progress. And Duncan Mason does well to humanise her accomplice, the one quicker to realise the gravity of what they have unleashed on the world. Some thought-provoking work here on a play that probably needs a bigger canvas.