Review by Hannah Fredriksson
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been in the headlines a lot lately, with ChatGPT causing problems in the field of education with its impressive generated essays. I myself live in a home with four smart speaker devices that are sometimes a convenience, and sometimes a curse.
Jacob Watton knows this all too well, having lived with his programmer brother in a house full of Alexa smart home devices. This show he’s crafted, ‘Alexa Turn On The Lights’, is an entertaining case study of how technology can be utilised in unexpected ways.
Tucked in an elusive room toward the rear of the WA Museum Boola Bardip precinct, Jacob greeted us personally at the door with his cheery presence and infectious energy. It set a warm and friendly tone for what would turn out to be an incredibly intimate show.
Towards the centre of the room is a simple rug with two modest armchairs, a floor lamp, and a small coffee table with an Alexa perched on top, unwittingly ready for her performance. The audience seating is as close as you could possibly imagine to this setup, allowing Jacob to make eye contact with everyone individually, and allowing them to feel seen and important.
Jacob begins the show with a teensy disclaimer that due to the perils of working with technology, things may not go according to plan, and due to the ever-evolving nature of AI, no two shows are ever the same. It’s wild to think that despite being scripted to a certain degree, you could almost say that our dear friend Alexa is dipping her toe into the world of improv!
Together Jacob and Alexa take us on a journey of discovery, from inviting Alexa’s archive to conjure up imaginative responses to obscure questions, to facilitating conversation between audience members. She doesn’t know it but her dry delivery is amusingly blunt at times, which is a reminder that all the programming in the world cannot replace a genuine human connection.
Despite first appearances, this show is not necessarily an endorsement of Alexa or AI products in general, but a well-rounded exploration of the good and the bad of what AI can help humans accomplish. Tonight Alexa succeeded in making us laugh and gasp in awe, but we are also reminded she has the potential to spread damaging misinformation with global consequences.
The extreme intimacy of the venue feels almost jarring compared to the common theatre experience, where you can barely make out facial expressions from seats that are far away and at a different level to the stage. The distance and darkness usually affords audience members a certain level of privacy and anonymity, but here in the small room at the museum - all on the same wooden floor and almost at arm's reach from each other - you actually feel incredibly exposed. It has the interesting side-effect of putting you in equal importance with our hosts, and indeed every member of the audience is important to the outcome of the show.
Throughout the performance, the lighting is controlled by Alexa herself via Jacob’s effortless voice commands that trigger smart globes throughout the room. The moody ambience of the gentle colour-shifting globes works wonders to set the tone for each portion of the show.
Jacob Watton has crafted a show that is uniquely intimate and innovative, shining a light on our relationships with AI and each other in a world that is more connected than ever and yet ever more lonely. Alexa, Turn On The Lights is a heartwarming invitation to take time to unplug and foster our friendships beyond the screen.