Last summer, more than 300 researchers from around the world travelled to Edmonton to be part of an artificial-intelligence conference hosted by the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. Amii, as it’s popularly known, is one of three major AI centres in Canada, and they wanted to show attendees not just the latest discoveries in machine-learning, but also the city of Edmonton as a whole.
They showcased exciting local businesses and venues. They catered events with the finest local sandwiches. And, once the lectures and workshops were finished, they brought in Rapid Fire Theatre for some live entertainment.
In return, to make the audience feel at home, the Rapid Fire performers brought a robot onstage. The audience was already delighted—and then the robot actually joined in the show.
Improbotics is the brainchild of Kory Mathewson, a robotics researcher and longtime Rapid Fire player, and his European collaborator Piotr Mirowski. The idea for the show first came to Mathewson when he noticed that early chatbots, like MIT’s ELIZA, were essentially operating on improv principles. “Doing the next obvious thing is what improv teaches you,” Mathewson says. “That’s what we’re trying to teach computers, too.”
Even so, developing a show that combined improv and machine learning was not a simple process. Mathewson’s chatbot was programmed to listen to what the other performers were saying, and then say back—either out loud, or projected onto a large screen—a brand-new line of dialogue that would push the scene forward. For this to work, Mathewson first fed the robot basically every movie script he could find, and then repeated this process thousands of times to refine the machine’s learning.
Eventually, the idea was ready—or at least close enough to try out. But who on earth would stage such a thing? Enter Rapid Fire Theatre’s Matt Schuurman, who loved Mathewson’s ambition and gave him a spot at that year’s Bonfire Festival, which specializes in experimental improv.
That first Improbotics show was, even according to Mathewson’s modest expectations, “a real failure.” His friend later described it as like watching someone do live tech support, for themselves. But most of the audience was sympathetic, and could tell they were watching something special. Mathewson, who now lives in Montreal, says that this kind of community spirit is something that Rapid Fire has worked hard to foster. “When you have a new idea in Edmonton, people are ready to get behind it and support it,” he says.
Like the robot itself, Improbotics has improved with repetition. Mathewson and Mirowski have since performed with their chatbot all across North America and Europe, and have seen their work recognized by places like the New York Times and Bloomberg.
So by the time Mathewson took the stage, along with other Rapid Fire performers, in front of three hundred AI experts, they were ready. The show—while still not technically perfect, because occasional moments of confusion are part of the charm—turned out to be the hit of the conference.
“It was wonderful,” says Warren Johnston, Amii’s managing director of community. “We gave out a survey to everyone afterward, and so many of them mentioned it as a highlight. It completely caught them off guard. They wrote things like, ‘I didn’t even know what improv was. What a great way to spend an evening, and geek out about AI.’”
Written by Michael Hingston, an Edmonton-based writer and book publisher
November 20, 2020