“Build” – Play Review (about a startup in Silicon Valley)


Written by Michael Golamco, “Build” is CityLights’ Executive Artistic Director, Lisa Mallette’s yet another bold venture aimed to bring thematically relevant plays to the Silicon Valley audience.  Set in the heart of Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, CA, this is a story about — what else? A startup! And what could be more hot than a video gaming company?

I am going to skip a more typical review with detailed plot description, in favor of giving you a glimpse of the future envisioned in this production.  To give a little background of the plot, Kip (George Psarras) and Will (Max Tachis) had earlier conceived a brilliant game that resulted in a grand success, leading to what appears to be a milestone based buyout deal.  Unlike Will, dapper and immaculate, Kip, the creative genius, with disdain for money, and for following procedures, and grave dislike for documenting details to make hand off of work easier for others, has a harder time with monetary success, fast cars, suits and board and shareholder meetings.  Kip spends his days cloistered in his home mourning the loss of his late wife, and has abandoned social life, in favor of staying indoors, in his cluttered apartment, working on his next big project; only this time to give it away via open source and cloud.  And who else to keep him company but an “artificially intelligent” being, an AI robot, oddly resembling his late wife Allison (Morgan Voellger).

English: IBM's Watson computer, Yorktown Heigh...

English: IBM’s Watson computer, Yorktown Heights, NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you think that it might be too far fetched, think again.  Sometime back, IBM’s AI computer, Watson made history when it appeared on Jeopardy, the popular game show beat most of the contestants http://bit.ly/JOZmwH .  Watson is a computer system, capable of answering questions posed in natural language.  This is no small feat.  Human language is infinitely complex.  That alone makes for a huge challenge in building an artificially intelligent, interactive being.  Puns, idioms, and other contextual expressions, and even the tone of voice http://bit.ly/17FvMmW  and a pause at a different place in a sentence, can completely alter the meaning.  In medicine, AI computer like Watson is expected learn the nuances of the language to offer complex diagnosis, and even indicate the level of confidence it has in the diagnosis offered.

ASIMO uses sensors and intelligent algorithms ...

ASIMO uses sensors and intelligent algorithms to avoid obstacles and navigate stairs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “Build”, Kip’s AI being is keenly aware of her identity “16 terabytes of data”.  But she is far superior than any ordinary machine and he has built it in human avatar.  The robot takes on Allison’s personality, even the loneliness Allison experienced when she was married to Kip and Kip was occupied with his gaming venture.  This AI machine made out of code is incredibly smart (beats Kip in the word game they play), is intuitive and curious, and even talks about her dreams.  When Will discovers Kip’s secret AI being, he is both astounded and concerned that Kip will forever stay a prisoner of his home, as long as he has the companionship offered by the robot.  Along with this ulterior motive, Will also has fond memories of Allison and is mesmerized by Allison-like-robot.

This is not stuff of idle imagination.  Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have all said that we should be concerned about the future of artificial intelligence.  Louis Del Monte, an entrepreneur, has said that some day, machines could surpass humans and could become the most dominant species, and Hawking has said that machines could eventually “outsmart financial markets” and “out-invent human researchers”.  Days may not be far when machines will fulfill the roles of companions and caregivers.

While it is challenging to imagine the future, this production is tackling the challenges of reproducing that “future” on stage.  It takes the audience into the fascinating world of video gaming as Will and Kip work on deliverables, cleaning out bugs, and packet drops.  Then with the help of high tech design and lighting, the audience is introduced to the AI robot.  Video designer, Nick Kumamoto has worked wonders with some scattered computer screens and lighting.  While AI robot appears caring and concerned, and seems to be a perfect companion, the story revolves around three human beings, one who has passed away, leaving behind memories, and two friends who struggle through their growth and transformation, to keep the ties that brought them together in the first place; gaming, innovation, and their urge to “build” something, in the heart of Silicon Valley.  “Build” will be running at CityLights in San Jose, till February 22, 2015.  For tickets, go to www.cltc.org

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  1. #1 by Harsh Sheth on January 30, 2015 - 12:55 pm

    Yeah.. A perfect review!

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