© Danny Willems

Emotion at the very forefront

Bruno Vanden Broecke and Valentijn Dhaenens are creating Jonathan, a play about the wonders of technology and the future awaiting all of us. We asked Bruno Vanden Broecke all about the new production.

Bruno, where did the choice for this topic come from? Has this been on your mind for a while?

“The idea started fermenting a good three years ago. That’s when I met Jonathan Berte. Just like me, he wanted to register his children for secondary school. I’m not sure you know this, but these days that means camping at the school gates. We spent two nights together, next to a heater, on a mattress, in our sleeping bags. That’s when he told me what he does. Turned out he’s a European authority when it comes to artificial intelligence or A.I. I thought that was incredible, the technology he works with. That man planted the seed for this performance.”

In a year, while we are still making the performance, A.I. will be even further advanced. 

How does A.I. feature in the performance?

“The magic will be in the possibilities of the technology, and in the wonderment at how advanced it already is today. In a year, while we are still making the performance, A.I. will be even further advanced. The way that evolves at incredible speeds, it’s hard to even imagine. To give you an example: since a year ago, you can have your entire DNA profile printed out – the entire 3 billion ‘letters’ that make up your personal genome – just by sending in a sample. A year ago, that cost 1000 euros. Today that price has dropped to 170 euros. In one year. So for 170 euros you can have those billions of letters of your DNA spelled out, on a USB stick. Not that that’s of any use, of course. I would probably start trying to learn it by heart (laughs).”
 

So you are already doing a lot of research about artificial intelligence?

“Yes, I find myself seeking out information more and more. I usually read a lot of fiction, but now my focus shifts to scientific books. Caroline Pauwels, who works closely with KVS, is also involved with this material. She supported the book Homo Roboticus (in which 75 VUB academics try to answer 30 titillating questions about life with robots, red.). I like that the two – science and culture – can find points of overlap, also here at KVS.”

To many people, A.I. still feels far away today, but it increasingly penetrates daily life.

“ I regularly hear people mention that they fear technology might threaten their livelihoods. And Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, also focuses on the matter. This knowledge seeps through and comes closer to reality for many. People like Caroline Pauwels and Yuval Harari are, in my opinion, a new kind of enlightened spirits, who try to see the trees through the wood. They try to keep the overview. That also typifies Jonathan Berte. His goal is to change the world through technology – in a good way.”

Do you look at the future with positivity, or does it scare you as well?

“No, I believe in the fundamental good of humanity. Certainly, just about every new invention has been used for bad purposes at some point. But I think that’s inherent to progress. I do believe we as a species are progressing. I also think it’s very interesting, what’s facing us. I watch everything from a state of childlike wonder. I had a grandfather who witnessed the invention of the first tv and the first car. And now we read Harari’s books, and he says: the first 150-year-old has already been born. How is that possible?!”

“I’m also a big fan of Nerdland, a science podcast hosted by Lieven Scheire. He gathers rather brilliant people around the table. Young people who are all geniuses in their field – computers, genetics, … And of course Lieven knows a little about everything. He moderates the talk show, in which they discuss the scientific news of the last month for two hours. Recently, the topic was CRISPR: apparently, scientists are now able to basically cut and paste DNA strands. I think it’s brilliant that such a podcast offers you an insight into how these things work.”

“I think it’s pretty amazing how Lieven Scheire manages to popularise science. In my time the reaction would have been: “Oh no, you’re going to study sciences?”. And I’m a typical classicist, too. Many youngsters in my time turned up their noses at science. Lieven really blew off the dust almost single-handedly, isn’t that brilliant.”

Do you want to contribute to that with Jonathan? Do you feel the same need to blow the dust off of science?

“I’m not sure yet, but I am happy that we get to combine both branches for once. Theatre is often either documentary, true life stories or history that needs examining – or completely made up tales. I like the idea that this production has a firm base in science. So it’s a good thing that Valentijn and I will be reading loads and studying the topic. And with Jonathan Berte at the source, it’ll be even better. He has already confirmed that he will be happy to help where he can.”

Valentijn and you will be alone on stage. Is this the first time you’re creating a performance with just the two of you?

“Yes. We worked together at Skagen for a long time, but since I left the company in 2009, we haven’t been on stage together. But of course we have remained friends. It definitely feels special to play together again, I am very happy about that. Valentijn has a certain streamlined physiognomy that reminds me of humanoids – but most of all, I think he’s an incredible actor. The way he handles language and speaks in the here and now. Last season I saw Knaus, which he made with Alexia Leysen, and I thought his performance was pure magic. He just dominates the stage on his own – impressive.”

The malleability of a human does interest me. The knowledge that you can mould yourself.

A humanoid may resemble a human, but it possesses superhuman power. Do you think each of us has a secret longing for superhuman powers or talents?

“The malleability of a human does interest me. The knowledge that you can mould yourself. Just think of the fact that we only use our memory for a very small percentage of the actual capacity – I think about 8%. 92% that remains untapped – isn’t that incredible?”

“Through listening to things like Nerdland, I realise how little I actually know. I am not a scientist. Back in the day, I felt too dumb for that. I couldn’t follow in chemistry and physics class. But that whole world really is one big playground. You see it more and more in television too: think of something like House M.D., a series in which a brilliant diagnostician finds the rarest diseases through elimination and tricks. Or Westworld, a series that really excited me. It shows you a sort of futuristic theme park, populated with robots who look completely human. Visitors walk around through it like it were Six Flags. The robots get a storyboard and play out a western for you, for example: you meet prostitutes in a saloon, a pianist, then a brawler arrives. They will never really hurt you, but you get to do whatever you like: beat, murder, rape, … Creepy, no? You pay a million, and for a week you get to go ham on pretend-people.”

“That’s where morality creeps in. One of the first science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov, came up with the three laws of robotics: a robot must not hurt a human, a robot must execute the orders given to him except when they conflict with the first law, and a robot must protect his own existence insofar as it does not conflict with the first or second law. That sort of thing really speaks to my imagination. And at the same time I wonder what drives someone to design a world like that, just like the professor in Westworld, played by Anthony Hopkins. Why did he design this world? Because he can, of course, but why would you? There are always human motives and morality involved. What is good and bad? How far can you go? Why do you create something? Einstein came up with nuclear fission to do good – and then Oppenheimer came along and made an atom bomb with it. People come up with so many things out of some sort of naivety, locked in their rooms with their formulas. And before you know it, someone else takes that work and uses it to do evil.”

“I am also intrigued by the role of the army. They are in a way the vanguard of such inventions, because that’s where the money is. The first GPS systems and drones came from the army. Many inventions initially come about as a form of self-defence – like Trump, who has created a space force to engage in space defence. What are they looking for out in space? I am really fascinated by that. And I think it’ll be a lot of fun for me and Valentijn to figure out what story we’re going to tell around that (laughs).”

I would like it if this performance instils in people an interest in science and everything around it, a sort of openness for what’s to come.

What do you want the audience to take away from this performance? 

“A sense of wonder. I would like it if this performance instils in people an interest in science and everything around it, a sort of openness for what’s to come. I certainly don’t want to scare people. Humanity right now is already plenty stuck in its own bubble, everyone in their own world, on their own accounts … The power of theatre is that everything happens live. People experience everything directly. Even if at first the performance seems to take place in a cold environment, and despite the fact that this world of deep learning and A.I. might seem void of emotions, I think emotion will be at the very forefront of the performance.”

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