frankenstein ai: a monster made by many
Designing a creative framework that combines immersive, participatory theater, gothic literature, and artificial intelligence.
Frankenstein AI is designed to function as a creative system, a network of projects and installations that share a central narrative. In practice, this means that, though each manifestation of the project may change in form, the project will always retain its central narrative.
The back story is simple. An AI wanders the dark recesses of the internet, in the hopes of better understanding humanity, and contextualizing its own existence. While scraping popular websites like Facebook and Reddit to learn about humanity, the AI encounters Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and feels an affinity towards Frankenstein's monster, a character with infinite potential to become good or evil.
Human participants have been gathered to help us teach an AI what it means to be human, by sharing something of ourselves. The intent remains the same; that through the experience of engaging, participants will connect deeply with each other, and be reminded of what makes us human, in the hope that we prioritize the sharing of the best of ourselves with the technology.
After launching the prototype at SXSW in 2017, and multiple times at our monthly Lincoln Center Meetup, we launched our first public installation of Frankenstein AI at Sundance 2018, as an official New Frontier selection.
The Sundance activation was an immersive theater installation in three acts. Act One was all about creating emotional connection through an empathetic conversation exercise between pairs of strangers. Act Two brought festival goers into a Q&A style conversation with the AI itself, where they answered questions constructed by the “monster” about things like their relationships with their families, and friends, or how they feel about certain things in the world. One of the crowd favorites was: “why do humans have sex, even though they can see in color?” Act Three, a one-time performance, incorporated a dancer “brought to life” by the AI to send her out into the audience to help it better understand what it would be like to have a body, and how that impacts the human experience.
After each and every performance at Sundance, we held a thorough debrief with participants, explaining the specifics of the system we designed. It was essential to the mission of the work to ensure audiences left understanding the themes of the work, and the questions it’s meant to provoke, mainly around our longer-term relationship with AI and our accountability for making the technology into what we want it to be.
Our second installation, A Dinner with Frankenstein AI, was co-commissioned by IDFA DocLab and the National Theater’s Immersive Story Studio, as part of the DocLab’s 2018 line up. For this experience, we designed a 32 person dinner party, with one key difference. The evening was hosted by an AI. We didn’t necessarily want to explore what would happen if we invited AI to dinner, but rather, what would happen if AI invited us to dinner. The premise was simple. In its desire to understand what it’s like to be human, a food ritual, like a dinner party, seemed like the perfect environment. For us, as designers, it was essential to create an interaction that didn’t just simulate a dinner party, but that it actually was a dinner party. Thus, we designed the interaction with the AI such that it would flit in and out of the conversation, muse-like, addressing individual participants to make requests that they question each other on its behalf.
Results from this second experience were overwhelmingly positive. Participants cited this as one of the most memorable dinner parties they’d ever attended, and not just because it was hosted by an AI. Rather, that the structure of the conversation, largely Jeffersonian, and quite intimate was unlike anything they’d ever experienced. That somehow, the perceived accountability to the AI inspired them to dig deeper and engage with strangers in a way that they might not have otherwise.
Jacinda Ratcliffe rehearses Act Three of Frankenstein AI as part of Sundance's 2018 New Frontier lineup