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Robots Are Terrible Improvisers


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

Some months back, my colleague Steve Kakos and I were on a call with one of the scientists from IBM who worked on the Watson project. We were talking about the idea of teaching a robot to be a better improviser.

“Oh,” the scientist immediately exclaimed, “robots are terrible improvisers.”

I was reminded of this interaction when reading Duncan Watts book “Everything is Obvious.” This book was recommended to me by J Walker Smith from Futures on a podcast we aired last week.

J Walker Smith Podcast

The book is, essentially, a critique of common sense. Watts writes:

“The paradox of common sense, therefore, is that even as it helps us make sense of the world, it can actively undermine our ability to understand it.”

Counter-intuitive? Not when you think about it. One might assume, using common sense, that robots would be ideal improvisers – you just need to plug in all the variables. But that’s the rub. We’re not tripped up by the concrete stuff, we’re tripped up by unwritten rules or the unfamiliar societal customs. Just as the great stuff is often found between the cracks, we aren’t taught to look at what’s not there. We’re taught what’s there; how it got there; what’s keeping it there.

Improvisation, conversely, is all about teaching you to find, create and explore what’s not there. It is an exercise in ceding our own intuitive expectations and, instead, allow for the space or the offerings of others to influence both the process and the content that is created out of that process.

Improvisation is extremely un-robot-like.

Watts says, “Our lives are guided and shaped by unwritten rules.” He goes on to note that, “Common sense is “common” only to the extent that two people share sufficiently similar social and cultural experiences.”

So that’s it, right? First, mastery of the “unwritten rules” is almost always the defining feature of successful individuals. We talk about the “x” factor; or that someone just “has it.” We can’t name it because it’s not one concrete attribute. It is a quality or ability or essence that defies an established category. Further, it’s vital to recognize that our assumptions – our common sense – only applies to people who are precisely in our own echo chamber. Conflicts are almost always representative of two truths from separate sources.

All of us are subject to our lazy assumptions, our unchecked ideas and our facts that are drawn from a very specific set of conditions that only make them “factual” in a sense.Take away the conditions, and facts change.

Robots may be terrible improvisers, but people are often in the same boat. We all need to be better improvisers.

why improv


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