Few technologies are as controversial as artificial intelligence. Some laud it as a major breakthrough in modern science, changing the course of human history for the better. Others may be repulsed by it, viewing it as unnatural and cruel and akin to playing God. Whatever your view on the subject, you’re going to want to see Uncanny Valley, a brilliant, unnerving, and surprisingly moving play about the wonders and pitfalls of artificial intelligence.
We first meet Julian (Alex Podulke) as a mere bust, head and torso, not much else. He doesn’t speak at first, and when he does, it is robotic. As the play progresses, he becomes more fully formed, gaining an arm, then another, until he finally receives his ultimate prize: his legs. His architect is Claire (Barbara Kingsley), part of the team of groundbreaking neuroscientists that created this new technology of artificial consciousness. She is teaching Julian how to be human. He is like a child in his discoveries, but his intelligence is highly advanced.
Uncanny valley is the theory that as a nonhuman becomes more and more human-like, there eventually comes a point when humans will become more and more unsettled by it. They will sense that something is wrong but won’t be able to pinpoint exactly what. What’s truly uncanny is watching an actor, who is actually human, portray a nonhuman robotic being. It is a testament to Director Tom Dugdale and Podulke’s amazing performance that Julian can bring on this valley while still remaining sympathetic. He is a wonder to watch, a sort of gentle Frankenstein’s monster. Kingsley is equally engaging as the scientist whose own personal family troubles allude to a deeper desire to make something perfect.
There are heavy themes of morality, questions about legal and proprietary repercussions, and discussion about the inner workings of such avatars that brings to mind Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go. Is it wrong to create the illusion of someone who looks and speaks and, by the standards in this play, thinks just like your loved one? Does such a being have emotion, a soul, even true consciousness? Playwright Thomas Gibbons has certainly crafted a thought-provoking exploration of the human mind and emotional landscape, and invites the audience to really think about these questions. But lest you believe this play is all deep and philosophical, there are many humorous moments thanks to the discoveries that Julian makes about the absurdities and idiosyncrasies of being human.
Uncanny Valley works on so many levels that you can watch it over again and get a different version and a different answer to your questions each time. This is a play to see if you’ve ever wondered how humans become immortal.
Catch Uncanny Valley at 59E59 Theatre until October 26. For more information and tickets, visit https://www.59e59.org/
At 59E59 Theatre until October 26.