Tech billionaires are ripe for ripping into at the moment. Zuckerberg’s rebranded Facebook, while Bezos, Musk and Branson are squabbling over a commercialised space race. It’s as much about the personalities of the entrepreneurs as it is about the products they represent, and they want you to trust both. Fresh from a run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Daniel Nicholas’ absurdist AI comedy Eugene explores that balance with hilarious hyperbole and playful interactivity.
As I sit in the newly refurbished Camden People’s Theatre ahead of the show, I’m given instructions to download The Difference Engine on my smartphone, which makes the play accessible to deaf audiences (by displaying captions on an individual’s device) and offers up a different layer of conversation. In between the transcription, Eugene – the self-aware, glowing box on stage with an affinity for GIFs and text speak like lol, “jks” and more – makes snide remarks and plays to our mischievous side as we’re encouraged to yawn at his creator, Hugh of Hubris Industries, during the machine’s launch. An ‘e’ icon on the stage projector screen helps to denote when Eugene wants to speak to us through the phone, but from a logistical standpoint, Deaf viewers have to choose wisely. When do we glance down at our devices for captions, and when do we look up to see what is actually unfolding? It’s not the best access when Eugene is – for the most part and in a very literal sense – a fight for our attention – intriguing within the context of the production, but not always ideal if our focus is meant to be on one particular thing.
Not only that, but what is arguably the most interesting idea, tucked away under the familiar questions about artificial intelligence (responsibility, ethics and so forth), is the fight for our trust. Sure, we all have our own opinions on whether AI will eventually give rise to some Terminator-esque killing machine and whether supercomputers are to be trusted, but the idea of how we trust is particularly fascinating here. In its main, human application, it’s broken when we are hurt and violated, and depending on its severity, it may be rebuilt over time. In the case of artificial intelligence, it’s probably the same ‘hurt threshold’, though it’s likely just that bit more difficult to gain the trust back when it’s killed or injured someone, lost them money or, in the case of Eugene, left the entirety of Boston (in Lincolnshire, that is) without power – even if we already trust technology to do a lot of things for us already.
And while Eugene is trying to convince us that giving it/him the entirety of the world’s power systems to eliminate wasted electricity is a good thing, Hugh is desperate to prove his own legitimacy after a string of media scandals. He tells us he is “an ‘Elon Musk’ who’s actually keeping it together”, but he is anything but, hiding childhood trauma (which, in the context of satirising artificial intelligence, is underdeveloped and meaningless) and desperate to be liked to the point it’s obnoxious – deliberately so. There’s the constantly interlocking fingers, unnecessary sunglasses, a turtleneck… and lunges.
All of this does, however, work to Nicholas’ advantage, for if the outlandish humour ever fails to land, it can simply be seen as further exaggeration and ridicule of a tech developer with self-confidence issues – even if it does wear a bit too thin at times with the overuse of Hugh’s posh, eccentric laugh.
There’s a chance that to some, Eugene asks and explores old questions relating to the ongoing debate about the role of artificial intelligence in the future (I certainly spotted a few myself). Whether that be true or not, it’s a triumph to condense the big ideas of AI into an accessible, hour-long play, to then ridicule it in an outrageously funny fashion. Eugene is the perfect pint-sized – or rather, box-sized – tech takedown.
Eugene will play at Wolverhampton’s Arena Theatre on 11 November.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Eugene’ for free as a member of the press in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.