Improbotics is a science comedy show and a live Turing test. An artificial intelligence-based chatbot is performing alongside a human cast, and it tries to pass as human as it sends lines to one of the improvisers via an earpiece. Our hilarious challenge is to attempt to justify, physically and emotionally, AI-generated lines that may make no sense at all.
Improbotics has been featured in the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, New Scientist, RTÉ One, Globals News Canada and Bloomberg. “Groundbreaking work […] high-quality comedy theatre […] poses serious philosophical questions” (Fringe Review, Brighton Fringe 2022).
**** and Ballsy Award (Binge Fringe 2020) and Most Innovative Show Award (Paris Online Fringe 2020).
***** “If I were introduced to a show like this as a kid, I would definitely have paid more attention to science class” (Phoenix Remix, Brighton Fringe 2019). **** Edmonton Fringe 2018.
“This could be revolutionary” (Broadway Baby, Brighton Fringe 2018).
“I will stick with artificial stupidity” (Colin Mochrie, Edinburgh Fringe 2017).
Why are we doing this?
Improvisation is about risk, challenge, and cooperation. Improvisers take on seemingly impossible tasks, and through their skill and open mind, surprise themselves. In this show, we want to explore how human improvisers can seamlessly perform when a machine or another human feeds some of them lines via an earpiece. We want the team to play together in a single, grounded narrative improvisation.
Similarly to the Actor’s Nightmare improv game, the AI-controlled improviser (Cyborg) needs to justify their lines as well as they can. However, in this case, their lines are interactive and depend on the context of the improvised scene. The other improvisers, who are not fed lines, need to make the scene look natural. All the improvisers, especially the Cyborg, need to play grounded characters. The AI chatbot, who listens to the conversations on the stage and interactively produces the next line for the Cyborg will probably be, at times, nonsensical. The free-will improvisers, who do not get lines fed to them, need to create strong dialogue. Or they can, to the contrary, pretend to be the AI and through deception, introduce a wildcard into the audience’s mind. This setup gives many potentials for strong comedy.
The technology that enables remote control of a human player consists of a laptop, an FM radio transmitter/receiver with headphones, and our custom-made software that allows an operator to type sentences that will be sent to an artificial intelligence-based chatbot (initially based on HumanMachine‘s A.L.Ex, later built around the GPT-2 model retrained on movie dialogue from OpenSubtitles and, currently, on the GPT-3 model), that will in turn generate sentences to be said by the Cyborg improviser. A small humanoid robot, produced by EZ-Robot and running our custom software, is the host of our shows. In our language show, called Rosetta Code, we rely on Google Translate and speech recognition in the Chrome browser.
Piotr Mirowski (Improbotics London) is an improviser and theatre actor who trained in Toulouse (C cédille and Ligue d’Improvisation Universitaire, 1999-2002), New York (QUICKTHINKING! Improv, 2003-2006) and London (The Nursery Theatre with Jules Munns, Heather Urquhart, Hoopla with Steve Roe, Katy Schutte and Chris Mead, The Showstoppers with Pippa Evans, Andrew Pugsley, Sean McCann, Adam Meggido and Ruth Bratt, City Academy with Jake Lyons, Imprology with Remy Bertrand). Piotr studied for a Diploma in Acting at LSDA – London School of Dramatic Art (2015-2017). He has performed in several hundreds of improv shows, and was a member of New York-based improv volunteering charity Cherub Improv (2007-2013), performing in hospitals or nursing homes, London-based short form group Improvable (2013-2016), and artificial intelligence-based improv HumanMachine (2016-). Stage credits include The Hotel (Cambridge Theatreworks, 2003), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Moose Hall Inwood Shakespeare Festival, New York, 2006), Playing with Grown-Ups (LSDA, London Fringe, 2017), Medea (Wretched Strangers, Brighton Fringe and Camden Fringe, 2018) and Earthbound (Wretched Strangers, Brighton Fringe and Camden Fringe, 2019). By day, Piotr is a research scientist in artificial intelligence and robotics and graduated with a PhD in Computer Science at New York University in 2011.
Kory Mathewson (Improbotics Canada), a Canadian Comedy award-winning improviser, has trained at Rapid Fire Theatre (2005-present). Kory presented TEDxRFT alongside Julian Faid at the Seattle Festival of Improvised Theatre, Austin’s Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, and was recently awarded “best of fest” at the Vancouver International Improv Festival. An endurance improvisor at heart, he has starred in multiple 50-hour Edmonton and London Improvathons (2012, 2016). He has performed and taught Theatresports and long-form narrative improvisation across Canada, the United States, and Europe at the Montreal Improv Festival,, the Bellingham Improv Festival, Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza in Edmonton, with Outside Joke’s main season in Winnipeg, and served as 2014 Artist-in-Residence at the Curious Comedy Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Kory is an innovator in the art form of improvisation, bringing new techniques and formats inspired by his work in cybernetics and artificial intelligence. In 2019, Kory obtained a PhD in Computing Science at the University of Alberta, with a thesis on “Humour-in-the-loop: Improvised Theatre with Interactive Machine Learning Systems”.
Piotr and Kory are co-creators of arts and science collective HumanMachine and of robot-based improv comedy: Artificial Intelligence Improvisation. They have been improvising together on Human Machine since 2017 and have performed, remotely and on the same stage, at ImproFest UK 2017, Brighton Fringe Festival 2017, Camden Fringe Festival 2017, and Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017. Their work has been credited in Avenue Edmonton, The Sunday Times, Canadian Television, RTE One, Bloomberg Business, Inverse and a feature in the New Scientist.
Ben Verhoeven (Improbotics Flanders) is a Belgian science communicator and improviser. He has a strong scientific background as PhD in Computational Linguistics and has let improvisation take over his life ever since. In his own company ERLNMYR, he performs improvisation shows about science (Hoofdstof, Improbotics, Full STEAM Ahead) and provides applied improvisation training to scientists. He is the co-founder and managing director of Swaajp Improtheater in Antwerp. They perform regularly in English and Dutch and have their own Swaajp School of Improv in which Ben is a teacher. As a member of Commotie — musical improvisation — he won the Kemphanen competition for best long-form improvisation show in Flanders in 2017. He also travels to international improv festivals to take workshops and masterclasses, to see shows, to teach, but also to perform with — for example — the Dutch-Belgian ensemble “Werewolves, the improv show” which he co-directs. He is also active in his new trio Prism, and the Brussels-based group ImproBubble. As a passionate organizer he is also a founding member of The SIN — an international network of ambitious improv players and organizers in Europe.
Boyd Branch (Improbotics London/Online) is a communications and digital media expert focused on creating dialogue around subjects of science in public spaces through improvisation, technology and theatre. A former Fulbright fellow, Branch’s critically acclaimed art, designs, lectures, and workshops have been produced off-off-Broadway and major cities in the U.S., England, Colombia, the Netherlands, and Pakistan (sponsored by the US State Department). A multidisciplinary artist and dedicated educator, Boyd has designed stereoscopic 3D media for planetariums, large scale architectural projection for festivals, interactive digital installations for museums, and presented his original improv focused science communication workshops at major science conferences and science communication institutions around the world. Most recently Boyd was awarded a Vice Chancellor Fellowship from the University of Kent to develop a series of digital media tools that will help scientists and science communicators more effectively engage with local communities. At Kent he also directs the Improvisational Media and Performance Lab, leading a cross disciplinary team in developing novel tools, experiences, and pedagogies for fostering adaptive radical social change. He is the co-founder of the Blue Bike Kid Show, which produces original STEM based material for the stage and web. He holds an M.F.A. in interdisciplinary digital media from Arizona State University, and an M.A. in theatre studies from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Etan Muskat, trained at Second City Toronto and Artistic Director of Bad Dog Theatre, has created in May 2017 a show called “Yes, Android“, featuring an improv cast where one of the improvisers was reading lines generated by a chatbot.
Update Required, Part 2: 3 March 2023
Kory Mathewson, Piotr Mirowski, Julian Faid and guests met up in Montréal for a night of Improbotics and Improvised TEDx at the O Patro Vys for a TechAide Montréal fundraiser.
Update Required, Part 1: 17 February 2023
Kory Mathewson, Piotr Mirowski and the London troupe joined for one night only at the Etcetera Theatre.
Theatre of Wonder: 27 October 2022
Piotr Mirowski, Ben Verhoeven and a local cast made an impromptu show followed by a Q&A at Toplotsentrala as part of the Theatre of Wonder festival in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Leicester Comedy Festival: 19 & 20 February 2022
We were hosted by the Attenborough Arts Centre at the University of Leicester.
[Online] International Theatre Festival in Iasi, Romania: 7 October 2021 We connected online with the Luceafărul Theatre in Iasi County, Romania to perform our science-infused Improbotics show as part of Iasi-Romania Festivalul International de Teatru pentru Publicul Tanar / International Theatre Festival for Young People.
London, England: 8 & 10 November 2019 We première a radical new show, “Rosetta Code”, at the Rich Mix in Shoreditch, London, as part of the Voilà! Europe festival. A multilingual “comedy of speech recognition errors” in Arabic, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Python, Spanish & Swedish.
London, England: 8 April 2019 Improbotics Ltd. is part of the weekly DuckDuckGoose show and jam at the Effra Social in Brixton.
London, England: 19 March 2019
Improbotics Ltd. organises its third robot-compèred improv night at the Wenlock & Essex Pub.
London, England: 21, 28 February and 7 March 2019
Improbotics Ltd. returns to the Nursery Theatre to perform at the Thursday Night Lights.
Amsterdam, Netherlands: 31 January 2019
Improbotics International Corp performs at Impro Amsterdam. Tickets for the evening session and for the workshop on the “Actor’s Nightmare, with Robots!” on Friday 1 February, are available here.
Edmonton, Canada: 12, 19, 26 January and 2 February 2019
Improbotics Inc. Edmonton led by Kory Mathewson with an all-star cast from the Rapid Fire Theatre perform improv with an artificial intelligence on January 12, 19, 26, & February 2nd at 7:30pm at the Zeidler Hall in the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
London, England: 23 October 2018 Jenny Elfving guests at the Improbotics Ltd. night at the Wenlock & Essex pub. Additional guest acts were Somewhat Theatre, John Agapiou’s Threesome (with 5 people), Hoopla’s house musical improv team The Stacattos, led by Phil Lunn and the award-winning Music Box Improv.
“Groundbreaking Work” according to John Hinton from the Fringe Review. “troupe of highly-skilled improvisers […] superb moments of comedy […] high quality comedy theatre […[…] truly extraordinary feat of software engineering […] this is a piece of work that poses serious philosophical questions”.
4 star **** rating by Binge Fringe, along a “Ballsy Award” and a “Most Innovative Show Award” by the Online Paris Fringe. “All of the performers showed excellent form to carry the show through despite being scattered all over the world. […] The implementation of the AI into these traditional Improv troupe games is genius and the pace of the event doesn’t skip a beat, even in between the monumental technical efforts undertaken to splice each player into a scene. This is exactly the kind of response that the creative world will have to look towards as we continue to learn to live with the current tricky situation regarding lockdowns and restrictions on how readily artists can perform together and in front of live audiences. […] raucuous fun, pure anarchy […] not to be missed”.
5 star ***** rating in “Improv at Camden Fringe – Preview Review”, by The Phoenix Remix, July 2019. “If I was Introduced to a show like this as a kid I would have definitely paid more attention to science class […] it is phenomenal to see just how much it has actually developed as a concept. It is engaging, it is like nothing else out there on the improv scene meaning that it is unique. To me, it has an essence of a Philip K. Dick novel and that is hauntingly beautiful and nerve-racking at the same time. GO SEE THIS SHOW.”
Review by Barbara Kolaric, November 2019. “All in the spirit and with the purpose of good fun, Improbotic’s Rosetta Code is an extremely interesting theatrical experiment involving technology: perhaps even more fascinating for its unusual concept […] being part of the process and observing the creativity taking place in the room was definitely a delight”