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When AI feels at home

China Daily Updated: 2022-09-07

A Chinese play based on Polish playwright Jaroslaw Murawski's sci-fi work is set to debut, Chen Nan reports.

Is the increasing implementation of artificial intelligence in our daily lives exciting or concerning?

A Chinese play, based on the sci-fi work, Humanoid, by Polish playwright Jaroslaw Murawski, may give viewers the answer. The play follows humanoid robots, which go far beyond driving cars, cooking or cleaning. They look, sound and almost think like humans. They coexist with their human counterparts and are built for entertainment and solving real-life human problems while recognizing basic human emotions and serving as emotional companions.

Directed by Miao Ge and produced by Star Theater, a cultural institution in Beijing known for staging theatrical productions for small venues, the play will debut at Star Theater on Sept 16, with two rounds of performances through October. The tickets for the first round are sold out. The play will also be staged at a Star Theater branch in Chengdu, Sichuan province, that month.

"There are many movies and TV series dealing with the relationship between AI and humans. For Chinese theaters, it's a very new subject," says the producer of the play, Deng Wei, who is also the vice-president of Star Theater.

"Unlike some sci-fi movies and TV series that highlight AI against the backdrop of big-budget pictures, such as the universe and wars, this play takes audiences back to daily life, with stories taking place at commonly seen settings such as homes and parties, which are closer to their lives," Deng says.

Humanoid is the third play produced by Star Theater that centers on a future subject. In 2020, it premiered Too Crazy to Live, adapted from Chinese writer Yan Leisheng's 2012 sci-fi novel Plague, which marked Star Theater's 10th anniversary. In 2021, it staged an immersive sci-fi play, The Painted Skin 2677, directed by Ding Yiteng, based on the classic ghost story from Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio) by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) writer Pu Songling.

According to Deng, the previous two sci-fi plays were well received and gained a large fan base among young people, which made the third sci-fi play Humanoid happen.

"The story of Humanoid takes place in 2050, which is not very far from our present day. We hope that the audiences think about the future and how they feel about the rise of AI after watching the play," says Miao, adding that though it's a story about robots in the future, it still focuses on exploring human emotions and communication among real people.

In the play, actor Wang Hao plays the role of a young man, named Lee, who enjoys the convenience brought by his humanoid robot, which is a caregiver and looks like an exotic female model. It seems ideal, but there's unease below the surface, with the young man purchasing another robot that looks prettier. The two robots, coexisting under the same roof and sharing a sense of intimacy with the man, seem to show jealousy toward each other.

"It's really quite close to reality as technology gets further integrated into our society and we probably don't understand exactly what we're getting ourselves into. It makes me think," says Wang, who has gained a large fan base after appearing in the popular comedy reality show, Super Sketch Show, which was first broadcast on streaming platform iQiyi in 2021.

Wang has played leading roles in two best-selling plays produced by Star Theater: The Desperate Love and Traveling Without a Plan.

In the new play, actress Zhou Xiaoling plays a mother, which is the only character against the idea of bringing humanoid robots into people's daily lives.

Zhou says, "when the humanoid robots start to think like human beings and have human-robot interactions, emotionally and physically, our lives will be filled with open-ended questions about the definition of humanity: what separates people from machines when both look and behave in similar ways and will human beings be replaced by robots?

"My role represents people who are expressing some very real concerns about the future with AI."

While movies and TV series can rely on post-production to make them more visually convincing on-screen, the creative team of the play spent a lot of time working on the costumes and stage, as well as the script, to bring a sense of the future to the theater.

According to Deng, 80 percent of the original script has been kept and a few changes have been made after translation to appeal to Chinese audiences.

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