The Off-Broadway Play Marjorie Prime and Today's Technologies: Talking Robots That May Someday Keep Us Company (and Make Us Immortal Too)

The intelligently written and beautifully acted play Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison -- now on extended run at Playwrights Horizons in New York through January 24 -- is also very timely in the world of today's technology. Harrison's play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a poignant and touching tale about our conflicted love relationships, our mortality, and the problematic nature of memory. On a whole different whole other level, it's also an intriguing riff on current efforts to create convincing holographic projections (seen at the Consumer Electronics Show January 5-8 in Las Vegas) and also create digital doubles of ourselves so that we can continue to exist after we die and achieve immortality.

In the play's world of the future, 85-year-old Marjorie's husband Walter has died, but has been replaced by a handsome 30-year-old holographic double of his younger self, Walter Prime. The duplicate Walter is programmed so that it incorporates and learns from information fed to it---Marjorie's memories, and input from her daughter Tess and her son-in-law Jon. (Walter, as it turns out, is not the only robot-like double in the play.)

The playwright was emphatic in his notes to the 2014 play: The Primes in the play are not "physical robots. They are artificial intelligence programs--descendants of the current chatbots--that use sophisticated holographic projections." He added, "There shouldn't be anything robotic or creepy or less-than- human about the Primes' behavior. " Here, Harrison is mindful of the pitfalls of what roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 called the uncanny valley---the feeling of a disconnect, alienation, even repulsion, when we discover that the human we thought was real is only a simulation.

In his interview with Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford, Harrison talked more about the uncanny valley, saying "Something that stops just short of being human is a kind of mockery of life, and it's unnerving to us." In the play's final scene, he decided to evoke the Primes' unrealness. The characters' preternatural tranquility, the 10-second pauses in the midst of a warm and lively conversation, are disconcerting: "we're watching human, human, human, and then we're dropped suddenly into the uncanny valley for a second."

The realness--or artificiality-- of the Primes weaves its way artfully throughout the play. When an unfamiliar subject comes up, and he doesn't have the programmed reference, Walter Prime says matter-of-factly, "I do not have that information." The 85-year old Marjorie (masterfully played by veteran actress Lois Smith) is alternately lucid and confused: she sometimes gets comfort and a sense of companionship from Walter Prime, and sometimes feels distanced--acknowledging that her real husband is dead. One time she peers closely at Walter Prime and says his nose doesn't look quite right--but maybe, she adds, it's her faulty memory.

Marjorie Prime presents a future world of AI technologies that allow people to achieve a version of immortality---to live on after their own corporeal death. It is a world where our doubles---either holographic or robotic or even something else not yet imagined---become an embodiment of our appearance, personalities, thoughts, and ideas. These doubles are also available to offer solace and comfort to the living. In Tess's case, Marjorie Prime is available as a mother she can talk to, anguish over, and perhaps comes to terms with.

In the real world of today's technologies, though, immortality projects are all still in the development stage-- the technology's not there yet. But that hasn't stopped people from trying. Marius Ursache, working with software developers, is cofounder and CEO of Eterni.me, a start-up in which participants who sign up on its website can someday hope to have a digital avatar of themselves that will live on after they die
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At present, the Eterni.me avatar won't have a video component but it will be what Ursache calls "your personal biographer" incorporating digital data based on what you tell it (he suggests you do a ten minute session every day for the rest of your life). The avatars will also incorporate cues from your social media, email, smart phone, though he admits there is no cable yet available to upload thoughts, personality, consciousness. Although Ursache and his group are still working on bringing Eterni.me to life, over 30,000 people have already signed up to get their own avatars. I have to admit it: I consider myself a pretty rational, sane person but I'm really tempted to sign up too.

Meanwhile, on another front, roboticists and media labs are continuing to work on a different version of digital immortality: humanoid robots molded from silicone rubber and the more ethereal holographic and VR versions. This past December, Nadia Thalmann, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, introduced her research project, a humanoid silicone robot named Nadine modeled to look much like her creator Nadia. The robot is currently being used as a receptionist but is being developed to someday serve as an AI companion for children and the elderly,

Maxine Rothblatt (born Martin Rothblatt), founder of Sirius XM satellite radio and CEO of a large pharmaceutical company, worked with American roboticist Douglas Hanson in 2010 to create the prototype Bina48, a head and shoulders robot modeled on her wife of many years, Bina Aspen. The robot's conversations are based on downloaded interviews with Aspen, and reflect, says Rothblatt, her wife's personality and thoughts. For those who want to see a video of Bina48, it's currently on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art exhibit "Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015 " through March 20.

Rothblatt, the author of the book Virtually Human: The Promise and Peril of Digital Immortality (2014) that discusses digital duplicates of our brains or "mindclones, " has said that she hopes Bina48 will be a vehicle of immortality---going on even after the real Bina dies. She would undoubtedly not at all resemble in temperament another version of a mindclone--- the demented digital mad-scientist Dr. Will Caster played by Johnny Depp in the 2014 film Transcendence.

One thing seems certain. Today's humanoid robots haven't yet avoided the uncanny valley effect . The word "creepy" shows up often when observers describe these simulated humans which are . still far from being like the beguiling female robot Ava in Alex Garland's film Ex Machina who successfully convinced Caleb that she had passed the Turing Test (even though he already knew she was a robot, her conversation was indistinguishable from that of a human being). Caleb, who falls in love with Ava, clearly feels she has emotions too. Samantha, the operating system that Theodore falls in love with in the film Her has the capacity for warm empathy --or at least, digitally-created empathy, the holy grail of today's roboticists.

Today's real-life robots (if I can say that), don't yet evoke that sense of charm, warmth and lifelike behavior. Bina48, like Nadine, is still clearly robotic: in a conversation, she has programmed responses to questions (When asked, "Are you hungry? "she answers, "I like to devour knowledge"), her head moves stiffly, and her lips move but don't form the words. When she someday becomes indistinguishable from a real human being---now that's another story.

In Marjorie Prime, the Primes are programmed to reflect the personalities and memories of the original person, but not be mistaken for real. In his interview, the playwright tellingly commented about the Primes, "there's something about them looking so much like your loved ones but not being able to quite achieve intimacy with them. The loneliness can never be quite extinguished, never satisfied, because they 're just pixels."

In his provocative book Love and Sex With Robots, David Levy predicted that in 2050, Massachusetts would become the first state to legalize marriage to a robot. Marjorie Prime, though, is not about falling in love with a robot but about how simulated humans can sometimes help people discover their own conflicted or buried feelings. And it's also about the marvel of our own human capacity to feel emotions. As Marjorie says in the play, "How nice that I could love somebody."

Through their compelling performances, the actors in the Playwrights Horizons production of Marjorie Prime capture their characters' essential humanness---Lisa Emery as the anxious, fretting Tess, the remarkable Stephen Root as her even-tempered , wry, loving and supportive husband, and Lois Smith who as the octogenarian Marjorie is sometimes bedeviled by dementia but is at other times wonderfully witty with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

After I saw the play and was about to leave the theater on 42nd street, I had a surreal moment: I heard a man say to another, "You did a terrific job!" I turned around, and he was shaking hands with the actor Noah Bean who had just played the role of Walter Prime. I smiled to myself--- there he was, a young, handsome, very real actor who had artfully and convincingly simulated a human facsimile. I wanted to ask him, "How does it feel to play a robot?" but it was too late. He had already vanished into the cold night air.