David V. Lu!!
Photo Credit: Dan Lazewatsky

Lt. Data: Method Actor

I had an interesting conversation with Ross Mead this summer about the ontology of robots performing.

The base case is robots that are just robots, and never pretend to be anything different. Most robots fall into this cateogry. Similarly, most people are just people.

People who pretend to be other people are called actors. Sometimes, actors will also take on robot characters, like Anthony Daniels and C3PO. You can also have robots who pretend to be people, like most of the AudioAnimatronics in Disneyland: figures that look human but are actually robots. Then you can have robots that pretend to be other robots. This covers robotic characters at Disneyland, like REX from Star Tours, a robot Animatronic in California/Florida that pretends to be a robot pilot in space.

That covers the basic categories, but there’s all sorts of more complicated Inception-like recursions that you can go into after that. The most common one is a human playing a robot playing a human, e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the Terminator who pretends to be human in order to blend in. I’m trying to think of an example of a robot playing a robot playing a human, but nothing comes to mind.

One of the most fascinating examples of these roles is none other than Lieutenant Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. This goes beyond the human (Brent Spiner) playing a robot (Data), particularly in three episodes where Data uses the holodeck to refine his acting ability.

In the first scene, Data does a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry V.

PICARD: Splendid, Data. Splendid. You’re getting better and better.
DATA: Freeze programme. Thank you, sir. I plan to study the performances of Olivier, Branagh, Shapiro, Kullnark
PICARD: Data, you’re here to learn about the human condition and there is no better way of doing that than by embracing Shakespeare. But you must discover it through your own performance, not by imitating others.

This may be a stretch, but if Data really is just emulating those actors, then here’s a human playing a robot playing a human playing a human.

Next, we have a scene from A Christmas Carol.

PICARD: Freeze programme. Very well done, Data. Your performance skills really are improving.
DATA: Your courtesy is appreciated, sir. But I am aware that I do not effectively convey the fear called for in this scene.
PICARD: Well, you’ve never known fear, Data. But as an acute observer of behaviour, you should be able to approximate it.
DATA: Sir, that is not an appropriate basis for an effective performance. Not by the standards set by my mentors.
PICARD: Your mentors?
DATA: Yes, sir. I have studied the philosophies of virtually every known acting master. I find myself attracted to Stanislavsky, Adler, Garnav. Proponents of an acting technique known as the Method.
PICARD: Method acting? I’m vaguely familiar with it, but why would you choose such an old-fashioned approach?
DATA: Perhaps because the technique requires an actor to seek his own emotional awareness to understand the character he plays.
PICARD: But surely that’s an impossible task for you, Data.
DATA: Sir, I have modified the Method for my own uses. Since I have no emotional awareness to create a performance, I am attempting to use performance to create emotional awareness. I believe if I can learn to duplicate the fear of Ebenezer Scrooge, I will be one step closer to truly understanding humanity.

Here’s where I think it gets really interesting. It is ‘just’ a human playing a robot playing a human. However, the idea of a robot using acting to better understand humans and subsequently itself, in order, presumably, to interact with humans better…that’s an idea I can get behind. It mirrors my own philosophy of using human actors to help better understand humans in order to improve how robots interact with humans.

Finally, we have a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

DATA: Graves at my command have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let ‘em forth by my so potent art. But this rough magic I here abjure, and when I have required some heavenly music, which even now I do, to work mine end upon their senses, that this airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound, I’ll (breaks character) Captain? Sir, your attention is wandering.
PICARD: Data, I can barely see.
DATA: But sir, I am supposed to be attempting a Neo-Platonic magical rite. The darkness is appropriate for such a ritual.
PICARD: Yes, but Data, this is a play. The audience has to see you.
DATA: Perhaps I have been too literal with respect to my set design. Computer, modify holodeck programme Data seven three. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act Five, scene one. Increase torchlight by twenty percent.
PICARD: There, that’s much better. Now, do you want to try it again?
DATA: Yes, sir. Captain, I am not certain I fully understand this Prospero character. I would appreciate any insight you might have that would improve my performance.
PICARD: Well, Data, Shakespeare was witnessing the end of the Renaissance and the birth of the modern era, and Prospero finds himself in a world where his powers are no longer needed. So, we see him here about to perform one final creative act before giving up his art forever.
DATA: There is certainly a tragic aspect to the character.
PICARD: Yes, but there’s a certain expectancy too. A hopefulness about the future. You see, Shakespeare enjoyed mixing opposites. The past and the future. Hope and despair

There’s one final exchange at the end of the episode.

(Data enters)
DATA: Captain, I am staging a scene from The Tempest this evening for a small audience. I would like for you to attend.
PICARD: I would be honoured. What scene?
DATA: Miranda’s first encounter with other human beings.
PICARD: O brave new world, that has such people in it.

This is a particularly strong selection of material for Data to be performing (and for the TNG writers to include), with the theme of progress, but also in the way that there is a distinction/separation of some of the characters from ‘normal’ humans. It is a theme of Star Trek, and I believe also of HRI, that the best way to examine the human condition is to insert someone with limited exposure to humans and see how they react and interact. This holds true whether that someone is a Vulcan, android or has been trapped on an island all their life.

So, let’s see. If I use this in my research, that makes me a human using a human playing a robot playing a human who is commenting on how humans interact, in order to help me better understand how best to use humans playing other humans to improve how well a robot can interact with other humans. Or something like that.

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