San Diego Rep explores the Uncanny Valley between you and your replicant

Will you be you?

Uncanny Valley at San Diego Rep
  • Uncanny Valley at San Diego Rep
  • Image by Daren Scott

Uncanny Valley

Want a life after death? For around $300,000 you can have your brain and body cryogenically frozen, just after you die, and put in giant bottles filled with nitrogen. You will remain in this minus 130 degree Celsius state until science can Lazarus you back among the living.

According to Thomas Gibbons’s Uncanny Valley, by that time science will have gone one better. “In the not too distant future,” say in the next 40 years, you can download all of you — DNA, complete life experiences, dreams — into an avatar-like replica of yourself. You can even pick your favorite age. Your body will be a biomimetic polymer; your perfect hair will never grow or go bald (or change style?). And you can remain that age, quite possibly, for eternity.

“The future,” the play proclaims, “is no longer a finite quantity.” You can be you once again for a mere $240,000,000.

But will you be you?

Julian is Claire’s fourth artificially intelligent being. When we first see him, he’s waist deep in a polished oak desk. He has no arms, since he’s in the early stages of robo-life. While computers load him with a first-rate education, Claire trains him on the basics of movement.

Julian’s like a young Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s curious, ultra-alert, and unselfconscious. He seems sort of human but isn’t. He hasn’t reached the “uncanny valley” yet. Masahiro Mori coined the term in 1970. Robots became so human-like that thoughts of playing God or Dr. Frankenstein plagued their creators.

In recent years, only older scientists still have difficulties. Younger ones, accustomed to robotics and artificial intelligence, don’t. Which makes Claire an exception: though 70-ish, years from now, she still does.

Like a lecture with dialogue, the first half of Uncanny Valley points out the positives of you coming back as you. Think of the experiences a mind existing for centuries could share with humanity: the knowledge, the wisdom. Think of how we could, as Louise says to Thelma, “let go of the old mistakes.”

The play also says a time will come when everyone can be replicated, not just the wealthy, like Julian Barber, the multibillionaire about to have himself downloaded into Julian.

When the android becomes Julian Barber, Uncanny Valley turns on itself. Barber made the decision, he says, because he hasn’t “had enough! I can’t even imagine having my fill.” He now has 76 years of memories in a 34-year-old body. He chose that age to be “the man my wife loved” once again. But, the play asks, is he the same Julian Barber — “the real one” — or a simulation created by algorithms and neuro-computations? Has he crossed the uncanny valley?

The play rapid-fires questions: legal, about property, and scientific/philosophic, about consciousness, being, and knowing. Another runs alongside. Julian Barber was/is a power-hungry robber baron. Although he chirps of altruism, will he share his “quasi-immortality” with humankind? Only 15 have it in the play. All are super-rich. Will they?

Which raises a more current question: when super smart pills go on the market in the next decade, will everyone be able to afford them, as Big Pharm claims, or just the privileged few?

So, is Julian the new Moses, guiding humanity to the A.I. Promised Land, or a monster with eternal hair and a perfectly tailored suit?

Uncanny Valley takes place mostly in the mind. Other than the robot Julian learning to turn his head, or shake hands, there is little onstage activity. The author adds a sketchy biography of Claire, and her husband suffering from Alzheimers. These function more as time-posts — things have changed outside the play — than character development.

For the San Diego Rep, Robin Sanford Roberts’s wide, two-level set is a lab/office. Geometric picture frames on bland lime walls suggest a mechanical future of sharp edges and tight corners.

Nick Cagle (Julian/Julian Barber) and Rosina Reynolds (Claire) make the best of a sketchy script. Using deft flicks and twitches, Cagle’s Julian is just robotic enough for credibility and not enough for laughs. His Julian Barber is also restrained, though, and could suggest his monstrous side with some equally subtle physicality.

As written, Claire’s almost robotic. The play would rather explain her feelings than let her feel them. Veteran Rosina Reynolds smartly turns a by-the-numbers part into an internal struggle between Claire the flawed human being, and Claire the crack neuroscientist. In the process, Reynolds reveals an “uncanny valley” inside of Claire.

In the end, the script has her flash through five or six emotions like shuffled cards. It does the same, however, with the swaths and swaths of important questions it raises.

Uncanny Valley, by Thomas Gibbons

San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown

Directed by Jessica Bird; cast: Rosina Reynolds, Nick Cagle; scenic design, Robin Sanford Roberts; lighting, Kristin Swift Hayes; costumes, Michelle Hunt Souza; sound, Kevin Anthenil

Playing through May 10; Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. 619-544-1000. sdrep.org

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