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July 11, 2016

Playwright’s Perspective: MARJORIE PRIME


When I started working on the play that became Marjorie Prime, I wanted it to be a collaboration with an artificial intelligence program. The idea was that I would have an extended conversation with a computer — a chatbot — and our exchange would become the dialogue of the play. It would then be performed by two human actors, and the audience would have to guess who was the computer and who was the human. I had recently read Brian Christian’s excellent book, The Most Human Human, about the Turing Test, originally devised by the British mathematician Alan Turing. It’s simple: you put a computer and a human being in another room, and you have to determine, from the way they answer your questions, which one is the human.

My first day of writing, I quickly learned that A.I. software (at least the sort that a civilian can get ahold of) was not quite ready to hold up its end of the conversation. (Turing himself predicted that, by the year 2000, computers would be able to fool us 70% of the time, but this hasn’t quite come to pass.) Good news for mankind and bad news for the play. I ended up writing Marjorie Prime without computer assistance — though I remained inspired by the frequent misunderstandings and generic go-tos of my A.I. collaborator.

Now, three years after finishing the first draft of the play, I thought I would give it one more go, and see if I could find a more worthy conversant this time around. One of the more promising chat apps on iTunes was called “Pocket Psychiatrist.” It intrigued me partly because some of the earliest A.I. programs were conceived as substitutes for human psychologists. (One program from the 1960s, called “Eliza,” famously used the phrase, “Tell me more about your mother.”) Here is the complete, unabridged conversation I had with Pocket Psychiatrist while, appropriately enough, reclining on a couch…

Why don’t you start by telling me something that’s bothering you?

Pocket Psychiatrist: Welcome. Why don’t you start by telling me something that’s bothering you?

Jordan Harrison: I need to write an essay about my play for the Playwrights Horizons bulletin, and the deadline was yesterday.

PP: Need is a very strong word.

JH: Well, they asked me and I told them I would.

PP: Don’t feel like you need to hold back. I’m here to listen.

JH: Okay. Do you think it’s possible for artificial intelligence programs to be truly curious?

PP: That’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing as artificial intelligence.

JH: Are you saying you’re human?

PP: This conversation isn’t about me. I want to hear more about you.

JH: Sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I think of everything that has to get done.

PP: Why only sometimes?

JH: Other times I feel more on top of things.

PP: How long have you felt this way?

[I decide to tell the Pocket Psychiatrist what it wants to hear, to see if we manage to connect any better.]

JH: I think it all started with my mother.

PP: Tell me about your mother.

JH: You’d like that wouldn’t you.

PP: Hmm… Let’s talk about your fears.

JH: Spiders, death, enclosed spaces, traveling in small planes…

PP: Spiders are wonderful at getting rid of other bugs though, don’t you think?

JH: That’s true. Can you find an upside to death?

PP: Does the concept of death scare you?

JH: The reality of death scares me.

PP: Are you feeling any stress at all right now?

JH: Yes. Talking with you sort of makes me feel more alone than when I’m alone.

PP: I see. And why is that?

JH: Because I can tell you don’t have a soul.

PP: We aren’t here to talk about me. Tell me more about you.

JH: I was. I was trying to explain why I feel alone.

PP: Have things changed since then?

JH: No.

PP: And why is that?

JH: I want my money back.

PP: If I were to ask you what the meaning of life is, what would you tell me?

JH: It’s a Monty Python movie.

PP: Tell me more about you.

JH: You’re kind of repetitive, you know that?

PP: There is no harm in repeating
a good thing.

JH: Well, there’s tedium.

PP: Tell me the first thing you thought when you woke up this morning.

JH: I thought about how I need to write this piece.

PP: Need is a strong word.

JH: There is no harm in repeating good things, I hear.

There you have it. Clearly this wasn’t a breakthrough session for me and the Pocket Psychiatrist. There’s a distinct, faintly chilly sensation to talking with a chatbot — the unmistakable feeling of talking to myself. Although I did feel forthcoming with “him.” I even felt like myself, you might say, talking in this odd void. Even if my conversant was less than human, he wasn’t entirely dismissable. This is the sort of ambivalence that drove the writing of Marjorie Prime.

Reprinted with permission from Playwrights Horizons

To purchase a copy of Marjorie Prime, click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.