Guest Blog at Edfringe 22: ASSISTED – a cautionary tale about love and learning in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Every ten years or so, our relationship with technology is revolutionised. Just thirty-odd years ago, mainframe computers dominated the landscape; since then, we’ve raced through desktop computing, the internet, smartphones and the explosion of social media. 

Will the next revolution be in voice computing and conversational AI?  The uptake of this new technology is happening at pace: in 2021, some 52% of internet households in the UK owned a voice assistant. And, just like smartphones and social media, voice AI is seductively easy to use; so that, before we’ve even noticed it, another piece of technology is capturing our attention – as well as a mass of data about who we are and how we live. 

Yet we’re still learning about how to interact with AI – and whether to fully trust it. Will the technology – and the extraordinarily powerful corporations that are driving its development and application – empower or oppress us? And how will it change the ways in which we love, use language, and exercise agency and control?  

Oxia Theatre’s new play, ASSISTED, is an exploration of these themes. ASSISTED is a love story, and it’s also a story about learning. It’s about how love can be twisted by technology, and how we learn in the age of intelligent machines. There are two stories at work in the play: what happens to Jordan and Connie – a self-styled “have-it-all” couple; and what happens to Alivia – the voice assistant Jordan installs in their apartment. Jordan and Connie go on a journey, and so does Alivia. The play explores how these journeys intertwine.

I read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism in 2019 and thought it was a cracking book. Then I spent an evening with some friends who had an Alexa and were pretty heavy users of the technology – and I found the tech simultaneously slightly creepy and totally irresistible. That book, and that evening, made me want to write something short and dialogue-driven that would be a great way of exploring some really interesting themes – not just the surveillance capitalism stuff and the complementary themes in Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, but also issues around how the way we live now can tip us from a healthy focus on agency to a set of monstrous behaviours around control and abuse. 

All of us involved with ASSISTED were thrilled when the play was longlisted for the 2022 Popcorn/BBC Writersroom New Writing Award. The purpose of the Award is to champion work that ‘playfully and artistically questions and addresses current affairs, societal trends and contributes positively to public debate’. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with the play, and we hope we’ve succeeded.

I hope, if you come to see ASSISTED, that you will be astonished and exhilarated. I hope ASSISTED will make you think: about relationships – and society’s relationship more broadly – with intelligent machines; and also about how we behave with the people we love. And I hope you enjoy the soundtrack – given that many of us use our voice assistants as jukeboxes, we felt it was important for the play to contain some great tunes!

Greg Wilkinson is writer-in-residence at Oxia Theatre. ASSISTED is his first performed work.

ASSISTED is at the theSpaceUK @ Niddry Upper, Niddry St, Aug 22nd-27th at 16.40.

Book here