Friday 7 June 2013

Review: To Kill a Machine

This is the first time I've ever reviewed a play. But it seems appropriate to post this on the anniversary of Turing's death. 

To Kill a Machine by Catrin Fflur Huws and Scriptopgraphy Productions 

Alan Turing had a fascinating life and many people in the UK will know something about him. Perhaps you'll know about his amazing code-breaking work in the war, perhaps you'll know about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, or perhaps you'll know that he is one of the founders of computer science. But Turing was a genius, and we don't yet know enough about all the other great things he achieved. Breaking the Enigma code and creating the computer were just two of his accomplishments, and this play takes us through another aspect of his work and his life: his contributions to philosophy and Artificial Intelligence.

We might all agree that a rock shows no signs of intelligence, and that a human does possess intelligence, but in between there's a large grey area. Is a sheep intelligent? Is a city intelligent? Is a machine intelligent? And what is a machine anyway?

Catrin Fflur Hughes has devised a play that weaves together multiple themes in order to explore these ideas. She begins with the difference between a man and a women, a contrast which was more pronounced in the society of Turing's time, where assumptions about gender roles dictated the jobs you might aspire to, and your role in the war. From this she neatly moves on to ask what's the difference between a man and a machine? Are some people more like a machine than a man? And if understanding the difference in intelligence is difficult, then what about in love? What's the difference between loving a man and loving a woman? What happens when we can no longer distinguish these differences and when our lives might depend on it? As the play moves swiftly on, we feel enlightened, and at the same time perplexed: how can we not have considered the relationships between all of these things before?

This play has been written by a playwright who really understood what Alan Turing actually did, and wants to tell us all how ground-breaking that was, and how much it matters to all of us. It will appeal to scientists, who love to see their heroes portrayed in a way that everyone can understand. This is not just a classic and tragic story of love and betrayal, but contains cleverness and computing to keep the geeks happy too. And the acting was superb. Gwydion Rhys gives us a vulnerable hero that we'd like to protect.

As a computer scientist, I feel that this is a hugely important play. It promotes a British scientist whose work should be more widely celebrated and understood, and it was conceived in the centennial year, 100 years after Alan Turing's birth. Mixing the arts and science to create works like this is something we should all be doing more to encourage. We should make plays about science, and use the arts to tell us about great ideas. The world shouldn't be divided into science and arts (or men and women, or men and machines) and Turing didn't make such divisions. The playground between the two is where the best ideas are born.

Go and see this play, and you'll come away feeling inspired to follow in Alan Turing's footsteps. After seeing this, you'll want to be free to be a bit different, think great thoughts and create new ideas.

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