Michael Skirpan is very worried about the direction artificial intelligence (AI) is moving.
“We’re taking judgments that humans make, where we take liability and responsibility of those judgments, and we’re offloading them onto statistical models,” says Skirpan, special faculty in Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Philosophy. “Our moral decision-making and our social fabric are being moved into this technical algorithmic realm, which really has no moral compass to it. We’re leaving it to the whim of pure business optimizations.”
Skirpan’s concerns manifested in the form of a screenplay he wrote a few years ago, which would eventually become a full-fledged immersive theater experience titled, Project Amelia. The play puts attendees on the set of an R&D lab of a fictional tech giant. Attendees and actors on the set interact with each other as the company prepares to launch a groundbreaking AI product.
Over the course of the play, major ethical concerns about the product arise, prompting actors and attendees to work together to try to see what’s really going on under the company’s hood.
I thought it would be interesting if people were able to experience a piece of the future and be able to interrogate it first-hand and collectively with other people.Michael Skirpan, special faculty, Department of Philosophy
“I thought it would be interesting if people were able to experience a piece of the future and be able to interrogate it first-hand and collectively with other people,” Skirpan says.
Project Amelia had its final production earlier this month in Pittsburgh’s South Side, where it had been running since early September. Tickets were highly sought out, with most shows selling out weeks ahead of time. The production received rave reviews; here are a few of them.
Also involved in the production: a cast of CyLab researchers.
“We’re trying to figure out what role immersive theatre serves in educating people about these issues,” says Maggie Oates, a Societal Computing Ph.D. student. “Does it instigate behavioral change? Does it instigate going out and talking about it?”
We’re trying to figure out what role immersive theatre serves in educating people about these issues.Maggie Oates, Ph.D. student, Societal Computing
After first putting on the show on a shoestring budget at the University of Colorado – Boulder in 2016, where Skirpan was pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science with a focus in computational ethics, he moved to Pittsburgh and connected with Lorrie Cranor.
“I had cited Lorrie’s work a lot. When I first met her, she and I quickly realized we had an affinity for similar research questions, and she thought this play was a really cool idea,” Skirpan says. “By the fall of 2018, we started making plans to integrate some research efforts with the show, and that’s how Lorrie and CyLab became involved.”
Other key players on Project Amelia’s production team from CMU included (but not limited to):
- Rob Cunningham, Software Engineering Institute | Research team
- Daragh Byrne, School of Architecture | Research team
- Eddy Man Kim, School of Architecture | Architecture consultant
- Eunsu Kang, School of Computer Science | Interactive Media Curator
- Carey Xu, School of Drama | Architecture assistant
Skirpan feels that most people don’t have a good grasp on the value of their data and how companies use it. Issues of data privacy are less about big companies peeking at your photos and your messages, he says, and more about them using your data to sell you products and services.
“Companies are taking the data that you’re emitting at every moment and repurposing them back into productized and marketable formats,” Skirpan says. “I think that whole system is really opaque to people, and with Project Amelia, I wanted people to feel like they could see under the hood at a tech company, and see what goes on with their data.”
Project Amelia’s production run may be over for now, Skirpan says, but he doesn’t see this as its ending. He believes the production has been timely and well-received by the tech industry and the general public alike, and would like further investment to refine some aspects of the play.
“People are telling us that this was a valuable exercise, and that this is a moment in our history when we need a medium to figure this stuff out. We need a way to evolve our expectations,” Skirpan says. “Project Amelia’s future may be in New York or London or some city where there’s a lot of throughput, but I also think there’s a huge amount of value in continuing this in Pittsburgh and refining some of the rough edges before scaling up.”