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The Future's So Bright

The 14/48 Projects partnered with Infinity Box Theatre Project to produce 14/48: Centrifuge 2, an event which paired five playwrights and five science writers to create an evening of 14/48 style theatre. This year I was paired with Elle O'Brien, who brought an absolutely fascinating topic to the table that was irresistible to work with, as you'll hopefully see in the resulting play below.

The format of the night was that each science writer presented a talk of up to five minutes, which was followed by each companion play. With Elle's permission, the text of her talk is presented here first to provide the context, then the script of the play follows. My random draw was to write a play for two men and one woman; the randomly drawn theme of the night was "Continuity"; the show was presented May 5-6, 2017.

Mood Ring 2.0
A talk by Elle O'Brien

Iím Elle OíBrien. Iím a science writer and researcher at the University of Washington, where I study speech and hearing. Recently, I encountered an article in one of my favorite journals, IEEE, that looked a lot like what might happen if electrical engineers set out to improve upon the mood ring.

If youíve been around the last few decades, youíve probably tried on a mood ring, and you know that itís a fad product that claims to reveal your emotions by its changing color. Of course, the ring doesnít know a thing about anger or disappointment or contentment or any other feeling. Itís not magic, itís a thermochromic liquid crystal. Itís responding to fluctuations in skin temperature, which you would have learned if you squeezed your ring and watched the readout change from ďromanticĒ to ďunsettledĒ.

In the study I read, a group of psychologists and engineers at the University of South Carolina tried to make a proof of concept that you could keep track of someoneís emotional state throughout the day using a couple of lightweight, wearable sensors. They went a little further than just tracking moods, and tried to predict the likelihood of interpersonal conflicts based on the readouts of the sensors. There have been a lot of efforts before to train computers with techniques from machine learning to recognize emotion, whether from speech or biological measures or something else. Itís not uncommon to see studies about that in the world of machine learning. What was notable about this particular study was that it took place in an uncontrolled environmentóparticipants went about daily living, moving about their homes and their city, for a whole day. And, that by synchronizing the readouts from multiple people, the experimenters attempted to predict not just foul moods but actual events, like arguments.

Quite a few measures were analyzed. Electrodermal activity sensors kept track of participantís sweating, and heart monitors tracked changes in pulse. Youíll note that neither of these measures are directly related to brain states at all-theyíre a proxy for what happens out in the peripheral nervous system when someone gets worked up. It might be hard, on the basis of sweat and heart beats alone, to train a computer to distinguish rage from anxiety from erotic excitement.

The experimenters knew this, and tried to capitalize on one of the most informative channels for conveying emotionóhuman speech. Study participants were fitted with small microphones, which logged their conversations. Then the acoustic data was processed with software that track changes in voice pitch and loudness, two features that we often vary to convey something about our inner states. Of course, there are only so many ways you can modulate your pitch and intensity, and many more emotions than that. Long before machine learning came onto the scene, speech scientists have known that there isnít a clean and simple mapping from voice frequency to feeling. Of course, thereís more information available: word choice tells us a lot about someoneís mood (or at least, if theyíre feeling positively or negatively about the conversation topic), and non-linguistic cues like ďuh-huhĒ, ďhmmĒ, and ďah!Ē are also pretty useful. These features were also fed into the computational analysis in the study.

So did it work? The experimenters found that their machine learning analysis predicted episodes of conflict reasonably well, although the strongest predictor was not a biological or acoustic measure but a self-report of feeling angry. Their program had too many false-alarms and missed episodes to be ready to send into the real world. Still, the authors considered their proof of concept to be a successful demonstration that wearable sensors could predict brewing upsets some of the timeóand not in a sterilized lab environment, but in the noisy, difficult real world. There are surely limitations to what information can be derived from the types of data collected, but itís reasonable to think performance could even improve by training their machine learning algorithm on a bigger data set.

Of course, even if this technology were better at detecting our inner feelings than we actual humans, there would be some major considerations to address before turning on our new fleet of machine therapists. How would we protect the massive amounts of extremely personal data being collected? What sort of security would be needed for that? And would the technology really be unobtrusive and accurate enough to improve our lives? Will we even like being emotionally monitored?

For one answer to that question, Iíd like to introduce our play: The Futureís So Bright.

The Future's So Bright
A play by Scotto Moore

Christabelle and Roger sit next to each other in a car.

CHRISTABELLE: We were in the car home from work when the level one alarm went off.

An intense beeping sound. Christabelle checks her wristband, shuts off the alarm.

ROGER: Whatís that?

CHRISTABELLE: Iím supposed to meditate.


CHRISTABELLE: I had a bad day at work.

ROGER: Do you want to meditate now?

CHRISTABELLE: I can meditate when we get home.

ROGER: Are you sure?


ROGER: See, you do seem anxious.

CHRISTABELLE: Youíre making me anxious.

ROGER: Which is probably what itís predicting, so why donít you just take a moment right now, Iíll be quiet, and you can clear your mind before we get home.

The two of them transition to a living room as Christabelle continues speaking.

CHRISTABELLE: But when we got home, it wasnít much better. We were watching television, and I donít know, something might have triggered me on the show we were watching, or maybe I was just, you know, holding onto something from work, but suddenly my monitor went off again.

An intense beeping sound from Christabelleís wrist.

ROGER: Again? Is something wrong?

CHRISTABELLE: Nothingís wrong.

ROGER: We could watch something else.

CHRISTABELLE: Maybe itís glitching.

ROGER: It doesnít glitch, theyíve got redundant AI clusters for that very reason. You know you can tell me if somethingís bothering you.

CHRISTABELLE: Nothingís bothering me.

A different intense beep - this oneís coming from Rogerís wristband.

ROGER: See, now Iím getting upset too.

CHRISTABELLE: Yeah, I didnít need an AI cluster to notice that.

ROGER: Well, Iím going to take five minutes to calm myself down and then maybe we can have a civilized conversation about whatever it is that keeps triggering your monitor.

Roger closes his eyes. We transition to a flashback - an office.

CHRISTABELLE: What happened was, we wanted a really fancy wedding. But we were poor at the time, and Rogerís parents would only pay for such ďextravaganceĒ if we committed to being monitored by this technology company that Rogerís dad founded. The system was called ďPreventative marriage monitoring,Ē designed to reduce the likelihood of divorce.

ANGUS: My name is Angus. Iím your assigned technician slash therapist. Hereís how this will work. Youíll each wear galvanic monitors, kind of like Fitbits, but instead of monitoring the amount of exercise you get in a day, weíll be monitoring your electrodermal and electrocardiographic activity - basically weíll be able to detect via skin temperature, sweating, heart rate and so on when youíre experiencing heightened stress.

ROGER: But how can you tell the stress is related to our marriage?

ANGUS: Well, we can tell when your monitors are in the same room, and the monitors have microphones in them, so weíll be monitoring your conversations as well.

CHRISTABELLE: Youíre going to be eavesdropping on us?

ANGUS: Well, not me personally, but our computers will be listening. Weíve got networks of artificial intelligence that will scan your conversations, listening to your intonation, pitch range, volume, as well as picking out key phrases - for instance, ďyouĒ statements are more likely to be accusations than ďIĒ statements in a conversation, arguments tend to use dramatic language like ďalwaysĒ or ďnever,Ē that sort of thing. Donít worry - actual people only start listening when thereís an emergency in your marriage.

Angus exits. Transition back to the living room.

CHRISTABELLE: So first the system tries to get you to relax, telling you to take a deep breath, or meditate for fifteen minutes, or listen to some new age music, whatever works for you. Then level two kicks in - if youíre still upset with your partner, youíre supposed to drop what youíre doing, and sit together, and just stare into each otherís eyes or whatever until you both calm down and just sort of see each other, you know. Itís supposed to stop you from stabbing each other I guess. But then if that doesnít work, for level three, they send out an on-call technician slash therapist.

Doorbell rings. Roger goes and opens the door - itís Angus.

ROGER: Angus! What a surprise. Weíre not even fighting!

ANGUS: Thatís why Iím here. The system is predicting that youíre about to have a major fight and they, uhÖ well, Iím on call tonight, and Iím, uh, familiar with your account, soÖ here I am!

ROGER: Well, come on in, letís get to the bottom of this. You know, Christabelle has been preoccupied tonight, but so far she hasnít said why. Maybe you can talk to her for me?

CHRISTABELLE: Behind the scenes, artificial intelligence systems are learning all about your behavior from all of the signals youíre sending back to the mothership. Machine learning algorithms are getting better and better at figuring out how you work. And theyíre comparing your data to thousands of other couples because really, arenít we all the same when you get right down to it?

ROGER: Sweetie, look whoís here, itís Angus.

CHRISTABELLE: Yeah, I know itís Angus.

ANGUS: Hi, Christabelle.

ROGER: If you wonít talk to me, maybe youíd like to tell Angus whatís bothering you?

CHRISTABELLE: Maybe Angus can tell you himself.

ROGER: Iím sure I donít know what you mean.

ANGUS overlapping: Uh, I donít think thatís such a good idea.

CHRISTABELLE: Fine, Iíll say it. Angus and I have been fucking each other since right after we met.

After a beat, both Christabelleís and Rogerís wristbands start beeping very loudly.

ANGUS: Uh, let me just shut those off for youÖ

Angus operates a small tablet and the beeping stops.

ROGER: How is that possible? If Christabelle was so unhappy with our marriage that she was cheating on me, the system should have predicted that months ago, right, Angus?

ANGUS: Well, uhÖ Iíve been editing your marriageís continuity data a little bit.

ROGER: What? How is that even possible without triggering deeper alarms in the system?

ANGUS: Itís very very difficult, I can assure you, but Christabelle of course is very very worth the effort, and the risk, which Iím surprised you yourself havenít realized yetÖ

ROGER: When my father learns that the system can be compromised by some random technician-

ANGUS: Random? None of this is random! Iím the technician your father specifically assigned to your marriage, Roger! And my editing of your marriageís continuity data is the only thing that kept your marriage intact this long in the first place!

CHRISTABELLE: Which begs the question, what exactly have the machines learned about us? How to prevent conflict? How to generate conflict? How to push us around for no apparent reason except their own amusement? Iím telling you, this is how the robot apocalypse starts.

ANGUS: I should have known I couldnít hide this forever. The system figured out I was interfering with its algorithms. I donít even know how it knew - it locked me out as soon as it figured out I was hacking it. But Christabelle - you didnít have to say anything to Roger! You could have made up some excuse for why you were upset! The systemís not a lie detector!

CHRISTABELLE: Maybe Iím sick of lying about my feelings in the first place, Angus.

ROGER: If word got out that ďpreventative marriage monitoringĒ couldnít save the marriage of the founderís son, the whole company would die a quick death. And Iíd have to pay father back for the cost of the wedding.

CHRISTABELLE: Sounds like quite a dilemma, Roger.

ROGER: Let me ask you something, Angus. Youíre sending reports about our marriage to my father, arenít you?

ANGUS: Of course.

ROGER: Edited reports, is that correct?

ANGUS: Yes, absolutely.

ROGER: Then letís make a deal. I want you to do more than just edit our marriageís continuity. I want you to substitute someone elseís entirely. He rips off the wristband. I donít want to hear that thing beep at me ever again, do you understand me?

ANGUS: I understand completely!

Roger goes to Christabelle.

ROGER: Christabelle - I donít know where things went wrong between us.

CHRISTABELLE: Probably when you agreed to a total surveillance state for our marriage.

ROGER: I want to make it up to you. Maybe we could start over, as though our marriage had never been monitored.

CHRISTABELLE: You canít prevent Angus from being a part of my life now.

ROGER: Maybe Angus could learn to share.

ANGUS: Oh I donít know how Iíd feel about-

ROGER: If he wants to keep his job.

ANGUS: That sounds like a fascinating option.

CHRISTABELLE: Well Iím glad that money has played such an important role in solving our problems here.

She removes her own wristband.

CHRISTABELLE: A few years later, Rogerís dad was bankrupt. Turns out we werenít the only ones who had a shall we say negative experience with preventative marriage monitoring. And I learned that I didnít feel like choosing between Roger and Angus. The three of us live a gloriously unmonitored life now, and what goes on with us behind closed doors is none of your business.

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