I went behind the scenes of Israel's newest city – and it's run by robots
An unprecedented look at a new town 30 miles south of Tel Aviv – with 300 people, 150 cameras and a flirtatious waitress who just happens to not be human.
At this exact moment in time, I'm watching a middle-aged woman blow dry her hair. I'm standing about two feet in front of her, but she has no clue I'm even there. She's in a bathroom, staring into a one-way mirror and I, unbeknownst to her, am standing on the other side staring right back at her. "And if thou gaze long into an abyss," wrote the philosopher Nietzsche, "the abyss will also gaze into thee."
A few minutes later, I see a group of millennials enjoying brunch on a street corner outside of a cafe. Another couple is enjoying the sunny Sunday morning by chatting on a park bench. A few blocks away, in the penthouse suite of a hotel, an elderly man is stepping out of the jacuzzi and into a comfortable chair to take a nap.
I see it all. As do all the viewers watching on TV and via online streams. All of the residents of this town, located about 30 miles south of Tel Aviv, are being filmed 24/7. Think of it like the popular "Big Brother" reality show – but instead of people living under constant surveillance in a house, they are residing in an entire city. There's a bank, a clothing store, multiple restaurants, even a town hall. The residents' every movement is being caught on 150 cameras, with the feeds being piped into a room filled with dozens of flat screen monitors that line its two-storied wall. In short, it looks like you've entered NASA mission control. Or a real live "Truman Show."
That 1998 Jim Carrey movie, about a man living inside a fake city that is being filmed and beamed around the world for TV viewers to watch and enjoy, serves as both totem and cultural landmark for this town I'm standing in. It was built by Keshet, an Israeli TV network, for the purposes of an inventive new reality series called "2025." Its name evokes a near future, similar to themes expressed in the popular "Black Mirror" series on Netflix. While the residents are all human, the shopkeepers who greet them in the town's establishments are all robots.
On a recent March morning, I depart my Jerusalem hotel and drive more than an hour east to meet the proverbial wizards behind the curtain and get a first-hand glimpse at the inner workings of this bizarre city.
This 65,000-square-foot city was constructed on the site of an abandoned parking lot in the industrial Israeli town of Yavne. While there are only a dozen contestants living in the fake city at any given moment, it takes a herculean effort of 300 people to keep the show humming along. That includes camera crews, editors, producers, even an on-site medical staff. Not to mention the numerous cooks on hand to feed everyone. "The nice thing about having your own city is that you have a built in coffee shop," Keshet's Revital Basel jokes to me when I first enter.
She introduces me to Ido Baron, a producer on the show, and self-described "deputy mayor of the town." He's a big guy, with a mountain man beard and long flowing brown hair. Dressed in a black sweatshirt, red pants and matching red sneakers, he looks like a hipster Grizzly Adams. "Everybody has their allergies," Baron says, as we walk into a massive tent where various crew members are taking a break. "Just the gluten-free people here is a lot to deal with."
For the next hour, Basel and Baron lead me through darkened hallways that surround and bisect this city. It's here where the cameras glide across dolly tracks and capture every moment. It's here where you can get up close to the town's residents, the only thing separating you from them a one-way mirror.
Is this a game or reality?
The "2025" game is as much a social experiment as anything else. A dozen contestants entered the city in mid-February. Cliques quickly formed, but contestants soon discovered that being nice to everyone would actually help them in the long run. Each contestant started the game with a certain amount of money. Why? Because it costs to live in the city. Choose to sleep in a fancy hotel, that will cost you. But choose to sleep in a hostel and share a bathroom with others? That's less expensive. Looking for a night free of any expense? You can always sleep on a park bench.
Want to buy food? That will cost you. You can order groceries online, eat at a local cafe, or choose to have dinner at a 5-star restaurant with meals cooked by celebrity chefs who make their way into the city each night. The streets are lined with vending machines, where the contestants can purchase everyday items like toiletries and microwaveable food. Professional economists were hired to figure out what to charge for each item in the city. Software tied to high-tech bracelets worn by each contestant keeps track of everything they buy.
Unlike most reality shows, where the contestants are sequestered away from the outside world, the residents of the "2025" city can call home and even surf the internet. The only thing is it costs them. When "Beverly Hills 90210" actor Luke Perry died suddenly on March 4, the contestants used their money to read online news about his passing.
I know what you're thinking: eventually the initial stash of money will run out. So the producers devised a way for people to work in the city – doing odds and ends projects that earn them money. Fans of the show can also donate money to their favorite contestants. Each week, the mayor meets with the contestants to find out who's not pulling their weight and who should be taxed more. It's because of this and other related aspects of the game that social currency plays just as important a role as actual money. Contestants end up using their cash to give gifts to other residents, even buying them a fancy dinner at a restaurant. "Unlike other shows, you don't step on people. You help them," Basel told me.
A running tally of each person's income is shown on a big electronic billboard in the center of the city. "There's a massive 'Hunger Games' style chart in the middle of the town hall. You can't miss it," Keshet's Kelly Wright said during our tour. "And you're constantly referring to it, and looking at it and talking about how you can improve your position. It becomes a part of the game itself. It's a level of transparency that we don't see in other games like 'Survivor.'"
Each week, the contestant with the least amount of money is sent home and a new one enters. By mid-April, a winner – the person who has the most money – will be crowned.
Fans of HBO's "Westworld" are familiar with the concept: a town run by robots. Enter the local saloon, and the barmaid is an artificially intelligent machine who can have a conversation with you. A similar concept exists in the "2025" city. All of the local establishments – from the bank to the bar – are operated by robot hosts. The hotel's concierge, Mr. Brown, is a favorite of the contestants. They will often stroll into his hotel's lobby just to strike up a conversation with him. Goldie, the robot waitress at the cafe, is such a good conversationalist that several contestants have poured their heart out to her and have even flirted with her.
Each robot is operated by an actual person sitting in a control booth on the property. Keshet hired actors to play the role of each robot. I meet the actor behind Mr. Brown, the concierge. He works long hours with very few breaks, as he's never sure when a contestant might walk into his establishment. Using a joystick, he can control the robot and move around. He shows me how facial recognition cameras are set up in his booth so that when he moves his face, the robot mirrors that. If the actor winks or smiles, the robot does the same. This hi-tech software was invented specifically for the show by Israeli startups.
I ask Baron what the contestants talk about with the concierge. "They come and complain to him about stuff they need, but also he's a therapist," he explains. "They come and confide in him. So if they need a shoulder to cry on, they have his shoulder. It's a good shoulder. I also cry on his shoulder every now and then."
Looking even further into the future
While the show is popular in Israel, this is really just a beta test for the "2025" concept. Keshet will be showing off the series at the upcoming MIPTV conference in Cannes, France, in April. Networks from around the world come to the four-day confab to acquire concepts for shows they can air in their own countries.
An American network like CBS – which has already seen success with the likes of "Big Brother" and "Survivor" – might decide to buy the idea from Keshet for a U.S. version. It might even use the existing city that Keshet built in Israel and simply film their version there. Executives at Keshet are also looking into building a handful of fake cities across the globe that can serve as filming hubs for different international versions of the show. Each network could rent a city for about 10 weeks to film a season of the show.
The show is also ripe for corporate synergy and sponsorships. The reality series has become so popular that IKEA stores in Israel are now selling sets of furniture that viewers have seen in different rooms on the show. During my tour, there was also some talk that future editions of the show could feature celebrity residents.
The series is, quite understandably, a massive undertaking. By the time the premiere season of the show concludes in a couple of weeks, story editors for "2025" will have culled through more 10,000 hours of footage. And they may start filming a second season later this year.
For Basel, who calls the series "Monopoly meets 'The Truman Show,'" the work is arduous but rewarding. And there are moments, she admits, when life on the other side of the wall is appealing. "I want to live there sometimes when I watch it," she tells me as I depart one civilization to return to another.
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