Badische Neueste Nachrichten BNN 2. Juli 2020 - 15/07/2020
Theatre installation by Chris Ziegler on the subject of "Artificial Empathy".

Badische Neuest Nachrichten BNN, 2 July 2020
By our editorial member Michael Hübl

ODO is location-bound. The name sounds male, the voice too. But ODO is an id. A computer system equipped with various sensors. ODO has artificial intelligence, AI for short. That means it is capable of learning. It uses its electronic competence to learn about its own environment. Since ODO cannot move, this apparatus, which both collects data and communicates, depends on the world coming to it. In the form of people who approach it. Chris Ziegler has selected five such contact persons. Each of them receives a protective helmet. The helmets have different colours. ODO can recognise the biological creatures by them. "Hello, Red! How are you?" asks the sonorous sound generator. "Fine, how are you?" the helmeted human types into his smartphone, which enables dialogue with ODO.

ODO is, if you will, the main character of the interactive theatre installation "No Body lives here (ODO)", which Ziegler recently rehearsed and developed further at the Karlsruhe Centre for Art and Media (ZKM). On 11 and 12 September it will have its premiere in Munich, and at the end of the same month it will be on show at the ZKM - as part of the programme for an international conference on the subject of "Artificial Empathy" and "Affective Computing".

"Affective with an A", says Rosalind Picard in a video from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The electrical engineer is considered a pioneer in the field of artificial emotional intelligence. The researcher emphasises the A because if you listen without concentrating, you might understand "effective" instead of "affective". In fact, it is also about efficiency. Technological means are used to find out what is going on inside a person. The procedures are similar to those used in lie detectors, Picard explains. But she also emphasises that their goals are not to unmask liars, but to help people better understand their emotions. After all, affects have effects or, as Picard puts it, "They're an essential part of any rational decision."

Technically, this is similar to ODO, except that the apparatus is not yet as sophisticated as "affective computing". There, for example, facial recognition programmes are used to be able to react to concentration problems when learning via the Internet, for example by slowing down the pace of the mediation or taking a break. ODO is not quite that far advanced. But it too - or rather - it enters into dialogue with its flesh-and-blood counterpart. Asks where one would travel if one were allowed to go on holiday ad hoc. The answer "Sicily" is followed by: "Ah, you like it warm and love good food. We'll come back to that later."

Now Chris Ziegler is primarily a theatre man and not a computer scientist or AI researcher. Together with the director and stage designer Michael Simon, he created the opera "Orfeo" in Wuppertal in 2003, and three years later the two produced the ballet evening "Bombana/Simon/Godani" at the Bavarian State Opera. And so the theatre installation "No Body lives here" is not a scientific man-machine experiment, but tells a story.

It is true that ODO enters into an exchange with his red-, orange-, yellow-, green- and blue-helmeted interlocutors. Nevertheless, the reactions of the device move within the framework of a narrative. A narrative that combines elements from Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry's modern fairy tale "The Little Prince" with the theoretical considerations of perception that the philosopher Plato made in his Allegory of the Cave.

"I'm trying to translate the digital back again," says Ziegler, who holds a professorship at Arizona State University where he researches the topic of the "intelligent stage". Translating the digital back means making the virtual real, giving it one or more bodies. Which is why working with choreographers is particularly important to Ziegler. This was already the case in the mid-1990s when Ziegler, alongside Volker Kuchelmeister (who was later to establish the Multimedia Studio at the ZKM), started a pilot project with William Forsythe. For the then Frankfurt Ballet director William Forsythe, he produced the CD-ROM "Bill Forsythe: Improvisation Technologies", which later won an award. In a way, it forms the basis for Forsythe's attempt to develop a system similar to the staff system in music, with whose elements choreographies can be written down as dance scores.

Ziegler's choice of the ZKM as a rehearsal venue is based not least on biographical reasons. He studied architecture here at the university, and later he was one of the first students at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG), whose charismatic founding director Heinrich Klotz he remembers fondly. Since then, Ziegler has repeatedly worked at the ZKM - as recently with ODO, who says goodbye to the participants in a polite robot sound: "Stay safe. Thank you for coming."