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opera 1

Jill Steinberg

“Death and the Powers” features robotic technology such as this musical chandelier, made of Teflon strings and electromagnets, designed to move and change shape.

Will machines get smarter than people? New opera sings the question

by Lindsey Valich
March 03, 2011

opera 2

Jonathan Williams

The opera uses  “disembodied performance” in which actors’ movements and gestures are recorded and embodied in the sounds, lights and objects on stage.

IBM’s super computer Watson made history recently when he became the first robot to defeat human contestants on the game show Jeopardy.

Watson, a marvel of technology as he quickly and simultaneously formulated math algorithms into coherent answers, raced against the split seconds those synapses take to connect in the human brain.

Is this only the beginning of robots dominating humans? The duel is already opera.

The Chicago Opera Theater will present Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers” next month, with robots and other robotic technology raising some of these same questions about the future of humans versus machines.

The opera tells the story of Simon Powers, a man obsessed with perpetuating his existence even after the death of his body. In order to ensure his legacy, Simon constructs what he calls “The System,” which allows him to download his memories and his very self in order to remain present in the physical environment after he dies.

Once Simon succeeds in immersing himself in The System, the actor playing Simon is relegated to an off-stage role while the sounds, lights and objects in the opera take on Simon’s characteristics.

“I think it’s speaking to some hopes for the future in terms of how these technologies will eventually give us better abilities—unknown abilities—and extended lives and also a whole set of anxieties that people have about how this will play out,” says Machover, an MIT Media Lab professor, who gave the insider’s view of his opera at a panel discussion at Northwestern University on Wednesday.

In a technique Machover calls “disembodied performance,” software specifically designed for the opera measured the singing, gestures, breathing, muscle movements and other aspects that relate to various actors’ performances. These measurements then became translated into the pulsating lights, music and movements of objects on stage so these objects become living versions of Simon himself.

“It’s about representing the subtle things about a person’s presence without them actually being there,” Machover says.

The opera includes a chorus of robots and a musical chandelier, made of Teflon strings and electromagnets, designed to move and change shape with the narrative of the play.

The absence of a human actor in favor of technology is one of the opera’s major themes, besides being a characteristic of the opera itself.

“A lot of people are anticipating this kind of future,” says Malcolm MacIver on the prospect of technology replacing human ability. MacIver is associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. “There is a lot of anxiety about these technologies as well.”

One person anticipating this future is inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil. Time magazine profiled Kurzweil in February about his theories that by 2045 computers will be more intelligent than humans. Kurzweil predicts robotics will transform our bodies, minds and humanity as a whole, allowing us to live much longer.

Theorists refer to this transformation of our species as the “singularity,” a physics term, according to the article, that refers to a point in space-time in which the rules of ordinary physics do not apply.

Computers are rapidly becoming more sophisticated, according to Kurzweil. Soon they will surpass humans in the ability to perform functions - such as answering questions on Jeopardy. Someday, they may create works of art and even make ethical decisions, he said.

Kurzweil’s estimate of 2045 is way too soon for the singularity to occur, says Machover, although he does admit that “Death and the Powers” presents the issue of this point in the future.

But Machover says his opera is more about death than immortality.

“I wasn’t so much thinking about living forever, I was thinking about the opposite which is mortality,” Machover says. “So, to me, the opera is about all of our desire to live forever and the fact that you know that it’s probably not going to happen.”

Despite the fact that Machover’s opera presents an idea of a future in which our minds can be downloaded, this concept of the singularity presents philosophical and environmental problems as well.

“Here we have these long-time horizons and dreams of uploading what-not, but in the meantime environmentalists have shown that we’re exceeding three of ten planetary boundaries for sustainable human existence and are rapidly encroaching on several others,” MacIver says.

Instead of focusing on our immortality, Machover says, we should focus on living our best lives in the present.

“The texture of our lives is not the actions and it’s not the words,” he says. “It’s all of the thoughts and all the parts of thoughts that are in your mind at all times. And that’s to me what the opera is all about. It’s about how ephemeral our lives are and how important it is to try to transmit between people what the essence is."

Machover's philosophy is direct. "I'd much rather think about how we can use our skills to enrich the rest of our lives rather than a few of us live forever.”

“Death and the Powers” will be at the Chicago Opera Theater on April 2, 6, 8 and 10. Tickets can be purchased at