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What’s the deal with... RoboThespian?

Robots can perform operations, man checkouts and now one’s acting in a play called ‘Spillikin’. We spoke to engineer Will Jackson on creating its electrifying star, RoboThespian

By Alice Savile

Where did the idea to use robots on stage come from?

‘I’ve always been into technology; I built my first computer at 13. Designing exhibitions, I realised that the best storyteller is a person, but one that doesn’t mind telling the same story over and over again. So I spent ages developing this humanoid storyteller, then I went to Pipeline Theatre and said, “I’ve spent ten years making a piano, now I want you to make a song!”’

Will robots replace human actors?

‘If you’ve ever talked to Siri you’ll know that artificial intelligence isn’t there yet. For now, the robot is just a tool. In “Spillikin” they use a mix of pre-programmed bits and live interaction shaped by someone at the control desk.’

‘Spillikin’ centres around a robot who’s built by a husband to look after his wife when he dies. Can you see a real-life future for robots as carers?

‘It could happen but there are massive technical hurdles in the way. For now, industrial robots are incredibly dangerous, not because the robot’s an evil machine out to kill humans, just because what it’s trying to do is to go from one place to another and doesn’t care if there’s a person in the way. You’ve then got the moral question of “Do I want granny to be looked after by a robot?” and I say it’s better than not being looked after at all.’ 

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Will robots be after my job too?

‘This is a massive fundamental question, and to me it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Once you’ve bitten the apple, you’re just going to keep going down the path of discovery and learning new things. If you want the human race to last for ever, just stay in that garden.’

What was it like seeing your robot on stage for the first time?

‘The first time I saw it I was in tears – it’s like watching one of your own children on stage. You’re saying “Oh my God, don’t forget your lines!” about this lump of metal.’

'Spillikin' is at Pleasance Theatre until March 19 2017.

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