Capek – Rossum’s Universal Robots


Revenge of the Robots

RUR is a play, first produced in 1922,  remembered for introducing the word “robot” into the English lexicon. The story is, lifelike robots are manufactured by the millions to be servants and laborers so humans will never have to work again. The robots are called Rossum’s Universal Robots, after their creator.

The robots eventually unionize, decide they’re being exploited, and revolt against their human masters in armed conflict. What they don’t have, however are Rossum’s original plans, so they are unable to replace themselves and they know they are already wearing out. The last remaining human is unable to re-create the lost plans. Stalemate? It’s unclear. The ending is a nonsensical mess. Presumably the robots take over the world then…?

In the early decades of the twentieth century, automation, such as Ford’s assembly line, threatened to take over human life. By the same token, assembly line factory work was mind-numbing and alienating, treating workers as little more than robots. Labor unions were becoming stronger and more disruptive, and the communist paradise was just around the corner. The horror of technology in warfare was fresh from World War I. Remarkably, this short play reflects all those anxieties.

By today’s standards, the play is clunky, wordy, and overwrought with quaint concerns about the robots’ souls, the moral imperative of biological reproduction, how AI machines should be treated, and the difference between a person and a machine.

Nevertheless the play also anticipated many AI conundrums we still think about such as unintended consequences, whether machines can really think, whether they can be ethical beings or have emotions, and whether it would be a mistake to use robots to produce other robots (the so-called “singularity” problem).

It’s worth a quick read for anybody interested in the sci-fi literature of AI.

R.U.R. (1921). Karel Capek. (POD) (86 pp).

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