I am Echoborg is a challenging, thought-provoking participatory online show created afresh each time by an audience in conversation with an artificial intelligence. This is a pioneering, innovative use of AI as a tool to deliver genuine audience agency in the creation of an experiential exploration of the impacts of automation on what it is to be human. I am Echoborg provokes audiences; it opens up a lot of questions.
Since 2016, experienced interactive dramatist, Rik Lander and conversational systems designer Phil D Hall have been developing a conversational system for the show that gives a very strong impression of sentience. It is designed, for example, to be able to have in depth conversations about subjects such as consciousness, the climate crisis and emotions. Human beings are highly prone to project “theory of mind”; to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc – on to entities that we encounter. Perhaps it is not necessary to build an AI with sentience when it is enough to build an elegantly and deviously designed pattern matching engine which people project as self-aware. A human weakness is that we see sentience where it is not.
Rik Lander is a maker of participatory events where audience members have a role within and agency over the narrative. He began his art career as half of the 1980 video art pioneers, the Duvet Brothers (1984-88). Their work was known as scratch video and took the form of film or TV footage re-edited to subvert its original meaning. Since then he has built a series of interactive artworks, installations and narratives including one of the UK’s first web dramas, magic-tree (2001) and The Memory Dealer (2010-13).
Currently Rik designs and builds conversational systems with Elzware. This includes I am Echoborg (2016-20). He teaches part-time at the University of the West of England where he leads a cross-disciplinary research team (FUSE – From Utility to Social Entity) exploring how different “behaviors” expressed by a relational agent alter the perceptions of its users, in this case NHS nurses.