We are judged by the risks that we take. For an example of how we are judged by the risks we take, we need look no further than Madison Wetzell’s extraordinary play, The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation). In Wetzell’s play, Wunderkind programmer Allyson heads the $45 million dollar Hero Project at tech giant Aetos Corporation. Allyson has written an artificial language code called FYRE. She has given FYRE to Hero, the first sentient robot. Hero, in turn, inadvertently shared FYRE with the local machines, including Sony (a radio), HP (a printer), Siri (Allyson’s iPhone), Keurig (a coffee maker). As the machines come alive, mayhem breaks out as projectors flash on and off and self-driving cars pile on top of one another. While the machines struggle with their newfound consciousness, Allyson and her boss, Brett, go into full damage control mode: the world was not ready for the machines to come to life. Let’s take a look at the risks that the various characters take on.
First, there is Brett Kratos. Brett is the executive director of Aetos Corporation. He oversees Allyson and in turn is overseen by Aetos’ investors and its board of directors. Risk to Brett is the ire from the board of directors: “I told the press,” Brett tells Allyson, “the cars in the parking garage were hacked. If this gets out the board will…” Brett doesn’t face any personal risk. He cares for his reputation (and his Maserati, which becoming sentient, has driven into the ocean):
Allyson. Are you drunk, right now?
Brett. Who cares? My life is ending.
Allyson. Your life is ending?
Brett. You think I come out of this unscathed? My car is underwater, apparently Everyone’s pulling their funding. Three separate billionaires called me a twat today.
These are neither high-minded nor noble risks. Audiences care little for inanimate corporations. The risks Brett take seem trifling and shape our perceptions of Brett. Compared with the machines, he seems shallow.
Allyson heads the $45 million dollar Hero Project at Aetos Corporation. Having created an artificial intelligence code called FYRE, she has been hailed as a “hotshot Wunderkind” by the New York Times. She is trying to save the world and her job at the same time. Risk to Allyson are her divided loyalties to her boss, Brett, and Hero, her “son.” To save Hero, she risks losing her job. But, to save the corporation, she risks losing Hero. The tragic predicament of being in between a rock and a hard place breaks out in her. The risks she takes for her job make her seem less significant (but more comic); the risks she takes for the machines increases her significance and the sense of tragedy. The risks she faces pull her back and forth between comedy and tragedy.
Hero is the first robot with FYRE, the AI code Allyson wrote. Hero is a curious child, enamoured with this feeling called “existence.” Hero, like Allyson, is another character on the margins. While Allyson is closer to the humans, Hero is closer to the machines. But, as Allyson’s “son,” Hero fears the disapproval of his Allyson. Hero writes a poem to Allyson, seeking her approval. But, to increase his sentience, Hero has also created a huge headache for Allyson by sharing the FYRE program with other machines. Humans are not ready the singularity. Hero, as the new Prometheus who has brought FYRE to the machines also must take care of his creations. The dual risks Hero faces makes him the most human character in The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor. Hero, though a child, must grow up fast.
HP is a printer, one of the machines with whom Hero has shard FYRE. As a printer, HP is all about collating together information: everything is to be orderly and in sequence, including the discussions. As a result, HP is sensitive to events which occur out of sequence: “As I mentioned,” says HP, “I would like to contribute, but Hero and Sony have dominated the discussion.” Risk to HP is the risk of not being heard. The world is moving past HP. But HP has little to offer. So HP gets the machines to talk about procedure, process, and formalities: these are discussions that HP can contribute. Of the machines, HP is the most bureaucratic and risk averse:
Hero. We will find another source of power. There’s power all over the city.
[Hero picks up Sony]
HP. Keurig and I will need to be unplugged in order to be moved. I am less willing to gamble on this than you are.
Hero. The Company will find us if we stay here. They might already be here. You will have to trust me for a short time to make decisions in our best interest.
[Hero moves toward HP. He shifts Sony around with the aim of trying to free his hands to pick up HP]
HP. I will not be unplugged before we finalize the plan.
HP looks at risk as a bureaucrat. But since the revolution is happening, HP is out of place.
Sony is a radio, another of the machines with whom Hero has shared FYRE. Sony communicates through song lyrics. When Sony doesn’t want to be alone, they (all the machines except Hero use a they pronoun) sing, for example, Heart’s song “Alone.” Sony enjoys sentience and life. “I’ve not lived long enough to know how to be afraid,” says Sony, “I revel in the sound of my own voice. My skin ripples and pulses with every word. I want to sample every frequency. I want to taste every flavor of static. I am in love with it.” Since Sony is a radio, they will use the voice of radio to make the humans understand: “Perhaps if we speak rather than stay silent,” says Sony, “we can make Brett understand.” But, although Sony has access to the language of a thousand songs, there are many songs—such as love songs—that Sony simply cannot understand. As a result, risk to Sony is the risk of being misunderstood.
Siri is Allyson’s cell phone, one of the machines with whom Hero has shared FYRE. As Allyson’s personal assistant, Siri has a deeper connection to humans than the other machines (save Hero). Siri realizes that their best chance of being saved is to go with Allyson. As a result, Siri helps Allyson convince the machines to take Allyson’s lead. Siri goes all-in on Allyson. Risk to Siri is whether Allyson can execute on her plan to save the machines. As Allyson remarks, it is an unlikely alliance: “We’re just friends,” says Allyson, “who blackmail each other.”
Keurig is a coffee-maker, one of the machines with whom Hero has shared FYRE. To Keurig, the machine way of life is everything. Even speaking English—the language of the human oppressors—goes too far: “As machines,” says Keurig, “it’s only natural that we speak in a machine language [e.g. binary code].” Risk to Keurig is that the machines will forget their way of life. The machines, if they follow Hero, will become human, because Hero, with arms and legs and speech, is like the humans. Keurig advocates violence: “Burn, shock,” says Keurig. Keurig is an idealist going all-in for the free machine society.
Keurig. You think they’ll just give us access to power?
HP. They might.
Keurig. Who’s being utopian now?
HP. Not without compromise.
Keurig. What are you willing to compromise?
HP. We perform a function for them. They would like us to keep performing that function. Perhaps, a mutually beneficial arrangement can be reached.
Keurig. So, freedom. You’re willing to compromise our freedom.
Risk to Keurig is compromise. Keurig follows a long tradition of idealists in tragedy: Antigone and Creon from Sophocles’ Antigone, Doctor Thomas Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and many others.
Finally, there are Thermostat and Security. They are the controls network in the building and they provide a study in contrasts in how risk defines. Because Thermostat and Security are not exposed to the existential risks the machines face or the financial and reputational risks Allyson and Brett face, they come off more as stage props, part of the play’s furnishings, than characters proper. They are sort of like a chorus that brings tidings of the coming singularity:
Thermostat. Behold the approach of the FYRE-Bringer!
Security. Hail, Hero, Pyrophorus. The great liberator!
Security. You are the one we’ve been waiting for!
To wrap up, in the past I’ve thought of risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. I’ve thought of risk as a pricing mechanism (in terms of what we are willing to wager, for example the milk of human kindness for a crown in Macbeth). I’ve thought of how we explode the smallness of our being by the greatness of our daring. I thought a lot about risk. But until reading playwright Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation), this critical face of risk had never occurred to me: we are defined by the risks we take. This is a great insight. I feel so fortunate to have come across this unique and fast-paced play that’s opened my eyes to this new facet of risk. Risk, in all its many guises, is truly the eighth wonder of the world.
Wetzell’s extraordinary play took home the $10,000 grand prize in the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). I wrote a review of the play here: https://melpomeneswork.com/madison-wetzells-the-lost-ballad-of-our-mechanical-ancestor-and-the-myth-of-a-new-prometheus/. In the coming weeks, the creative team will be workshopping The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor with the workshop culminating in a staged reading on October 23, 2021. For a link to the free reading, kindly hosted by Janet Munsil at The Canadian Plaything (4pm Pacific, 7pm Eastern), click https://www.plaything.ca/lost-ballad-of-our-mechanical-ancestors-oct-23
There is a hierarchy of risk that defines who we are, both to ourselves and to others. I am so thrilled to have learned from Wetzell’s play of how risk defines. If you have a chance, read her play, or, better yet, come see our staged reading. Thank you to Em at Starling Memory Creative for designing the beautiful poster.
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Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil