The icecaps have melted, only Antarctica is above water and your only companion to guide you through the unknown is an interface backed by artificial intelligence.

This is the dystopian future that students from the EPSRC CDT in Smart Medical Imaging, and one of their colleagues from the School of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences, King’s College London, have been co-creating with theatre company, Horatio Productions. Over the course of three workshops, nine researchers helped to develop a new science fiction play, Antarctica, which explores the true potential of artificial intelligence within an imaginary setting.

Students share their technical knowledge of AI with theatre company Horatio Productions around a table.
Students share their technical knowledge of AI with Hortatio Productions

The collaboration, organised by the CDT’s Public Engagement Officer, aimed to develop the students’ ability to communicate their research to non-academic audiences. The students involved are researching the potential of machine learning and AI techniques to improve medical imaging. They helped the theatre makers develop the script by breaking down complex concepts relating to AI and explaining their projects in lay language.

Cartoon created by CDT student Virginia Fernandez.
Cartoon created by CDT Student Virginia Fernandez (1/4)

The mindboggling conversations between the researchers and Horatio Productions were captured by multitalented first year CDT Student, Virginia Fernandez. She combined her artistic flare and her technical knowledge to create a series of engaging cartoons. The star of the illustrations is a charismatic and rather cute character who represents AI. The character introduces the concepts of AI and machine learning, explains how AI works, explores some of the associated challenges and showcases how the researchers at the CDT are harnessing AI to improve medical imaging and healthcare. These cartoons will be used in future public engagement events. 

Second year PhD student, Irina Grigorescu, is developing deep learning techniques to help increase our understanding of early brain development. Irina was motivated to be involved with the theatre workshops by her long-lasting love for science fiction (which coincidentally also sparked her interest in a career in science). “For me, the most enjoyable aspects were the conversations we had and the fact that I got to talk and think about my area of expertise in a different way. I learnt that stepping back and thinking about the overarching aim of my work and its possible outcomes is a really important experience which, I think, every researcher should have.”

Students (left to right: Jonathan Jackson, Amer Ajanovic, Irina Grigorescu, Marica Muffoletto and Robert Holland) provide feedback to script writer Juan Echenique
Students (left to right: Jonathan Jackson, Amer Ajanovic, Irina Grigorescu, Marica Muffoletto and Robert Holland) provide feedback to script writer Juan Echenique

The masterminds behind Horatio Productions, Fumi Gomez and Juan Echenique, create theatre that promotes scientific outreach, focusing on a positive vision of the work of scientists and engineers. The students were essential in the development of the play Antarctica. Their advice and expertise allowed us to create a story that not only respects, but also celebrates the work of artificial intelligence engineers. Their support helped us stay away from clichés and tropes. […] the students gave us the material we needed, both at a professional and a personal level, allowing us to see them as experts, researchers, creators and close companions through this artistic journey. We’d like to highlight the creativity and understanding of narrative nuances they displayed; rather than staying in their role of experts, they went the extra mile, providing advice and ideas that ultimately became pivotal to the development of Antarctica.”

Students watch a script reading of Antartica
Students watch a script reading of Antartica

This project is true celebration of interdisciplinary collaboration and the myriad of creative approaches available to engage non-academic audiences with scientific research. Thanks to Fumi and Juan and all the fantastic researchers who have been involved; Samuel Budd, Hugh O’Brien, Irina Grigorescu, Jonathan Jackson, Virginia Fernandez, Sofia Monaci, Amer Ajanovic, Marica Muffoletto and Robert Holland. 

Horatio Productions present: Science Fiction Theatre Festival: Antarctica. 19th-23rd May.
Antarctica poster. *The play has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, check the Science Fiction Theatre Festival Website for revised dates.*

The final play will be showcased during the Science Fiction Theatre Festival in November, at Pleasance Theatre. For more information visit the festival website.