Edmonton

Oh A.L.Ex., you crack me up: Tech and theatre collide at Edmonton improv show

A computer-based comedian took over an improv show in Edmonton Tuesday evening, feeding an actor their responses to other improvisers through a headset.

Improbotics highlights Edmonton's artificial intelligence and arts scenes

Improv actors prepare for a show that features artificial intelligence Tuesday evening. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Its name is A.L.Ex. Its goal? To make you laugh.

But A.L.Ex. doesn't experience joy itself — because it's an artificial intelligence software.

The Artificial Language Experiment (A.L.Ex) took over an improv show in Edmonton Tuesday evening, feeding an actor their responses to other improvisers through a headset.

Julian Faid, a senior performer with Rapid Fire Theatre, said working with AI comes with a unique set of challenges.

"When we do improv with … regular improvisers, regular human beings, there's a bit of a trust back and forth that you know that they understand the rules of improv that you're all playing by," he said.

"The AI doesn't necessarily know those rules, so it may say things that don't necessarily make sense. And it puts more pressure on us as improvisers to sort of justify what those things are."

The Improbotics show is part of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research's Deep Learning and Reinforcement Learning Summer School. The 10-day conference has brought 300 AI innovators from across the globe to Edmonton.

Improviser Kory Mathewson is one of those innovators.

He's one of the main developers behind the computer-based comedian. Basically, he's A.L.Ex.'s dad.

Kory Mathewson is one of the main developers behind A.L.Ex. — the Artificial Language Experiment. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

The AI learns to have conversations by reading movie scripts and then predicting an appropriate response.

"It's made to be conversational. So you say something to it, it says something back," said Mathewson, who recently got his PhD in computing science from the University of Alberta.

Improbotics started in 2016, he said, exploring the intersection of humans and machines on stage.

"People can come and laugh and see a show like this and understand that we're uplifting the society that we are a part of by featuring this tech, by maybe saying 'all this tech that's out there, it isn't [so] scary," he said.

"I also think it allows other improvisers, other storytellers to tell new, interesting stories in ways that they haven't been able to do before."

Warren Johnston is director of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute, one of the conference hosts. He said Improbotics allows conference-attendees to build off of what they're learning in a unique domain.

"It really showcases our community in Alberta well, where we have this really strong sector in terms of artificial intelligence research," he said. "And then we also this really great arts and culture scene and this amazing improv scene."

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