Writers: Michael Chan, Mark Deans, Bruce Gladwin, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price and Sonia Teuben
Director: Bruce Gladwin
One of life’s great challenges is to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes. Back to Back Theatre’s The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes attempts to get us to do that for people with learning disabilities – and, in turn, to consider what life will be like when artificial intelligence overtakes mankind’s.
Performers Sarah Mainwaring, Simon Laherty and Scott Price are setting up a room for a town hall discussion in which they plan to talk about how they are treated. But they are struggling with each other: Sarah says she doesn’t want to speak, and Simon and Scott disagree on whether to replace her or get her to face her fear.
And then there’s the terminology with how to refer to themselves collectively. Terms such as “intellectually disabled” or, a term more common in Back to Back’s native Australia, “people with cognitive disabilities”, show that terms are fluid from nation to nation. From person to person, too: Sarah rejects terminology that Scott claims gives him pride.
There’s an undercurrent, never explicit, here that it’s important to treat individuals as just that, rather than relying on a crutch of a blanket term that risks belittling and dehumanising. The actors are not immune to this themselves: Simon’s opening speech is intended to acknowledge the indigenous tribe on whose land the town hall is situated, but he waves away his continued inability to get the tribe’s name right.
All of this dialogue is presented in surtitle form, ostensibly by an AI that is supposedly performing live text-to-speech, autocorrection and all. Whether the use of such surtitles is, as Sarah suggests, offensive in itself (is it really too much of a stretch for the audience to listen more closely?) is somewhat moot, especially in scenes where the Luke Howard Trio’s score is amplified almost unbearably loudly. But gradually, the AI becomes a fourth character, debating, challenging and sometimes agreeing with the actors about its role in their life.
And as the discussion moves to artificial intelligence, this trio posits the idea that, as computers become self-aware and capable of intellectual deduction far in advance of anything of which humans are able, we will all risk being treated with disdain, belittled, treated by our cybernetic super-brained overloads as little more than a chicken or a turkey – or, as they suggest, as “someone with a disability”.
Already we see that the machine learning at the heart of AI is capable of amplifying existing prejudices: if the material with which they are trained contains any sort of bias, that skew of data can be amplified.
The best way to prevent that is to eradicate the bias in the first place. And that’s what Back to Back’s great piece of theatre tells us: walk a mile in our shoes, they say, for at some point in the future, that’s where you might get stuck. If that’s a prospect that makes you afraid, what does that say about our treatment of disabled people today?
Continues until 22 October 2022