Job Vacancy: Echoborg - a participatory theatre experience

In 2030 most jobs are done by machines. Stubbornly, some humans still prefer their taxi drivers, policemen and doctors to be human. That’s where Echoborgs come in. Echoborgs are humans that do actions or speak words given them by an Artificial Intelligence. Public service Echoborg is the only job in town.

Audience members are invited to see themselves as job seekers at a 2030 jobs fair. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones to have an interview to become an Echoborg.

But getting a job is not the only challenge. There is a power struggle going on. The Echoborgs need the help of the audience to negotiate with the AI.

The outcome of each performance depends on the conversations that occur. It's participatory but it’s up to you whether you join in.

We've built a real AI for the show

Our purpose-built chatbot is the central protagonist of the play and offers an experiential means of exploring feelings of anxiety concerning a technological future that seems to rush towards us leaving no time for reflection.

About our funders

We are grateful for support from the University of the West of England, Bristol's Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education and its Digital Cultures Research Centre.

Origin of the concept

In 2015 psychologists Corti and Gillespie coined the term Echoborg.

An echoborg is a hybrid agent composed of the body of a real person and the “mind” (or, rather, the words) of a conversational agent; the words the echoborg speaks are determined by the conversational agent, transmitted to the person via a covert audio-relay apparatus, and articulated by the person through speech shadowing. Corti, Kevin and Gillespie, Alex (2015) Offscreen and in the chair next to you: conversational agents speaking through actual human bodies. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 9238 . pp. 405-417. ISSN 0302-9743

Interactive dramatist Rik Lander has taken this idea and built a dramatic and troubling scenario around it.

About the Bot

During the show there is no one behind the scenes speaking into a mic or typing the replies. The conversations are with a ChatBot built using an open source language called ChatScript. A microphone pics up the words spoken by the interviewee. These are input to the ChatBot via a speech-to-text program. The bot responds via a text-to-speech program into the headphones of the Echoborg who repeats the words.

The Chatbot has been programmed by Phil D Hall who built his first intelligent agent in 1982. Phil views ChatBots as moving three dimensional constructions rather than static lines of code.

The words are written by Rik Lander. After each performance the conversations are analysed and new responses are written. In this way audiences are helping in the process of creating the show. The first version in February 2016 had 43KB of code. By January 2017 it had 500KB of code.