Buried treasure in SE14

The theatre is not a regular preoccupation of this blog, but don’t panic. I don’t have an opinion about whether you should see the Aldwych version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

But who could resist being summoned to the Gordon Wood Theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London (disclosure – clients of mine) to a play commemorating 50 years of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour? Not I. After all, as the Paris-based researcher who sat next to me said, the AISB is the place to be if you want to see ground-breaking dialogue between engineers and philosophers.

Godfathered among others by Mark Bishop, chair of the society and professor at Goldsmiths, MIL-STD 1815 is a two-hander performed by Stephen Hudson and Julia Jade Duffy. It wanders the centuries with ease. From the 19th century, the actors play the poet Byron, his daughter Ada Lovelace, and computer pioneer Charles Babbage, to whom Ada was muse; then Alan Turing and others from the 20th century; and in the 21st, a lawyer and an academic discussing autonomous weapons. These devices are one of the current age’s most problematic manifestations of the issue of whether machines can think, a debate dating back to Babbage and rendered vivid by Alan Turing’s famous Turing Test.

The play is an astonishing display of acting prowess, with long, complex dialogue (there are even some equations), plus long spells of demanding dance and movement, by both actors, especially Duffy.

Its link to the present reflects Bishop’s interest in weapons systems which can take a decision to shoot on the basis of rules which they are free to interpret. Does such a device take decisions, much as you or I might, and if so is it alive and might it, not its maker or owner, have responsibility for its actions? (By the way, Mark was entitled to be a little out of it last night. He has just organised a major international conference, seen a play onto the stage and become a father. Yes, the baby is Ada, as in Lovelace. Oh, and he is a leading light of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.)

The existence of quandaries such as this illustrates just what the world lost with the death of Alan Turing, who saw these issues with astounding clarity. Today, by contrast, few aspects of current British life are as satisfying

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as Turing’s rehabilitation, and last night I was especially happy about it. Having decided to ask the person sitting next to me how she came to be there, I was delighted to be told that she is his great niece, herself a computing graduate and teacher. At one point in her life, she explained, people looked blank when she told them of her relative who more or less invented modern computing. Now everyone knows who he was.

She enjoyed the play (and laughed a lot at the bit, based in reality, where Turing tries to recall where he buried his life savings). But apparently she, her sister and her mother are even more entranced by the Turing movie, now out, with the inevitable Benedict Cumberbatch. There are some things even Goldsmiths can’t compete with.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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