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On Stage: artificial intelligence meets artificial stupidity

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Daniel Goldstein loves rules. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin he studied artificial intelligence, the branch of computer science that imbues machines with the rules of thought. As a graduate student in psychology at the University of Chicago, Goldstein works on computer models of cognition, studying the rule sets that govern how people perceive the physical world.

But in his off-hours Goldstein is an improv actor. This might seem like a contradiction: surely improv doesn't suit the temperament of a binary guy like Goldstein. In improv you're supposed to push the limits, break the rules, go a little nuts. But Goldstein likes to perform, and in Hyde Park any performer worth his salt improvises. What to do?

Write a program that generates rules for improvisation, of course. Goldstein's idea was born in a computer lab course called Practicum in Artificial Intelligence, taught by Kristian Hammond, who along with being a world-class computer scientist is the handsome but usually troubled lead in Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, the improvised spoofs of Tennessee Williams plays performed every weekend at the Bop Shop. When Hammond charged his students with coming up with programs that would have "cocktail-party appeal," one student designed a system to help people select movies according to their tastes. Another wired a computer to a VCR to monitor how people played Street Warrior and offer suggestions for better play. And Goldstein conjured up something he called "Structuralist Gilligan."

"It used structuralist principles," he explains with academic seriousness, "to find plot resolutions to episodes of Gilligan's Island." The concept was that sitcoms, like languages and computer programs, have a grammar, or basic framework, on which all new iterations of the form are built. "First there's an initiating event, like news that the island is sinking or someone is arriving unexpectedly," says Goldstein. "Then there are the conflicts, how different people respond. Third, there are the actions, how the conflicts play out, and finally the resolution that restores everything to the way it was before the show started." Goldstein fed a computer the plot elements from 500 sitcoms and had it analyze them for common structural elements. Then he designed a program that could apply that structure to any set of circumstances. Artificial intelligence meets artificial stupidity.

On a car trip down to Memphis, Goldstein and fellow improviser John Bourdeaux got to talking about the program, and Bourdeaux suggested they form a troupe and try it live. Back in Chicago they assembled a group of actors, drilling them in the grammar of the sitcom and in how to stay within the form's half-hour time constraint. The result, a show called Sitcom, follows the same rules as Goldstein's computer program, applying the look and feel of a television comedy to characters and situations created on the spot. Using a collection of 56 cubes, the actors construct sets as they go, creating tables, loveseats, and kitchens on demand. Two musicians spin jaunty theme music to punctuate the action.

Sitcom is finishing up a six-show run this weekend. Goldstein eventually hopes to move the show to a permanent north-side venue, and he has dreams of applying his program to bigger fish. "I hope we can eventually start a mill for cranking out sitcom plots to sell to Hollywood. We generate an enormous number of plots, and all we have to do afterward is type them up." Now there's a way to fill up those 500 TV channels we've been promised.

Sitcom plays Thursday through Saturday, October 20 through 22, at 8 PM in the first-floor theater of the University of Chicago's Reynolds Club, 5706 S. University. Tickets are $6. Call 702-7300 for info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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