Tuesday, October 3

Improbotics: Artificial Intelligence – International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Comedy improvisation partly powered by artificial intelligence. A real-life imitation game, or Turing test. Given the current Hollywood strike and the rapid growth of models like ChatGPT, there can surely be no better moment for the Improbiotics troupe.

Sadly, instead of a hilarious show tapping into the zeitgeist, this is a rather chaotic experience, and it all feels fairly dated.

Kraftwerk’s Pocket Calculator brilliantly soundtracks the audience entrance. An EZ-Robot, now a mainstay of classrooms around the world, tells people to ‘find your door’. Purposeful error or a reminder of the fallibility of technology? Either way, it generates a laugh.

The show begins with an awkward scripted double act from our host, AI researcher Piotr Mirowski, and the aforementioned robot: ALEX (Artificial Language Experiment). It is made clear the cyborg cast member has learned all it knows from a combination of scripts and newspapers. Both the Guardian and the Daily Mail. This should be interesting.

What appeared to follow was a set of scenarios where the human improvisers are joined by an extra cast member. ALEX makes themselves known via one of the actors who vocalises the AI’s lines after being fed them via a radio earpiece. Appeared because this was only explained someway into the conceit.

The audience can vaguely follow what is going on via a screen at the back which uses speech recognition to create a ‘script’ of proceedings. Unfortunately, this is pretty hit-and-miss and not very easy to follow.

Some of the scenarios are quite clever: can AI write a wedding speech or create a TED Talk slideshow using parameters suggested by the audience for example?

There are a few passing snigger-worthy moments, but they are few and far between. Any comedy comes, unsurprisingly, from the humans.

Unfortunately, far too often the result of this experiment is random words or phrases awkwardly inserted into proceedings with little comic effect. A few years ago, this might have made for an interesting point in itself but nowadays we know AI can do better. It just doesn’t here.

The performers try but at best they feel hampered or limited and at worst they don’t appear to be very on it.

For example: one of the most important rules of improv is ‘yes and…’. Always try to develop and progress the story. When the AI finally reveals its TED Talk presentation the human ‘professor’ delivering it appears only able to describe the images on screen. Comedically, one would expect a lot more.

Ironically, the show was beset by technical problems. These were covered up with traditional improv games of ‘Freeze Tag’ and ‘One Word At A Time’. Preferable to AI? Certainly. Funny? Not massively.

Perhaps the performers were put off by the chaotic nature of the evening, perhaps this improv show needs some rehearsal. Either way, what should have been topical, clever, and funny was anything but.

Playing until 23rd July 2023. Tickets and more information about the Greater Manchester Fringe can be found here: https://www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk/.

Reviewer: Peter Ruddick

Reviewed: 22nd July 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.