One hundred years since a hellish vision of technology spawned that fateful word: robot | Robots

“Pay attention Josef,” mentioned the Czech playwright Karel Čapek to his brother. “I’ve an thought for a play.”

Josef, an artist of some renown, was portray furiously and unimpressed by his brother’s intrusion. “What sort of play?” he requested, sharply. Karel set out the plot. Sooner or later, people have created artificial, humanoid creatures to extend productiveness within the factories and battle wars on the battlefield. Constructed as slave employees, they are going to ultimately stand up and wipe out the human race.

Josef was detached to the concept. “Then write it!” he mentioned. However Karel was caught. He couldn’t consider the suitable phrase to explain his synthetic employees. “Name them roboti,” mentioned Josef. This was the Czech phrase for serf or pressured labourer.

Karel determined the phrase robotic was an ideal match. The play, Rossum’s Common Robots (RUR), premiered in Prague in January 1921. The exchange with his brother was relayed by Karel Čapek in a newspaper some years later, reflecting on how he launched the phrase robotic to the world when the play premiered in January 2021 – now precisely 100 years in the past.


The play was successful. An authentic work of science fiction, it fed into early Twentieth-century fears about expertise’s function within the drive for mass manufacturing after the primary world struggle. RUR’s daring and nightmarish imaginative and prescient of a future the place humanity is below risk by robots precipitated a sensation.

Kara Reilly is a tutorial, dramaturgist and creator of Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre Historical past. In her ebook, she says: “Everybody within the viewers would have recognized somebody who died on account of the struggle, and the concept of robotic replacements for troopers would have been compelling.

“With its use of tanks, zeppelins and photographic imagery, the primary world struggle was a showcase for rising expertise. It made folks all of a sudden conscious of the very actual risk of the destruction of the human race by its personal machine-based creations.”

Čapek’s robots furthered the controversy as as to whether expertise may liberate employees and eradicate handbook labour. As Reilly remarks: “These slaves have the potential to remodel the world right into a paradise for human beings. Partly, RUR interrogates and satirises that modernist battle between capital and labour to forge a employees’ paradise.”

The primary English translation arrived on Broadway in 1922, that includes a younger Spencer Tracy. A 12 months later, it was taking part in within the West Finish at St Martin’s theatre, with one reviewer within the Pall Mall Gazette commenting: “The Robots are made fairly haunting with their heavy expressionless faces and automaton gestures. As one comes out, poor soulless Robots appear nonetheless to be crowding spherical – on the street, the tube raise, the strap hung practice. Curious impact! Can or not it’s true?”

The ‘T-800 Endoskeleton’ from 1991 film Terminator 2, offering a less than benign vision of the robot age.
The ‘T-800 Endoskeleton’ from 1991 movie Terminator 2, providing a lower than benign imaginative and prescient of the robotic age. {Photograph}: REX

RUR was each charming and terrifying to audiences. In 1927, it was the primary full-length play to be aired in its entirety by the BBC, and later, in 1938, it turned the world’s first televised piece of science fiction when a half-hour programme went out stay on the BBC.

“I do suppose the concepts in RUR have continued to affect sciencefiction tradition, even on a unconscious degree,” says award-winning, bestselling science fiction creator Stephen Baxter. “Čapek’s robots rebelled, as have robots ever since, from The Terminator to The Simpsons.

“These days we predict extra of presumably disembodied AI’s reasonably than humanoids, however the ethical dilemmas are the identical. How do you management robots? I don’t imagine Čapek thought all this via consciously however he gave us a fable, virtually a biblical parable, to allow us to discover such points. Coining the phrase ‘robotic’ was a brand new thought to discover in each fiction and science itself.”

Whereas Čapek’s invention of the ‘robotic’ proved to be culturally and scientifically important, RUR’s recognition pale, and at present the play is essentially unknown.

Caitriona McLaughlin is an Irish theatre director who directed the Irish National Youth Theatre’s 2017 production of RUR on the Abbey theatre in Dublin. “I used to be in search of a play that makes an attempt to articulate who we’re as a species and what kind of ethical code we need to set for ourselves,” she explains. “RUR tapped into some very up to date themes that I knew a younger forged would reply to, specifically an over-reliance on expertise.” The theme of rebellion and revolt additionally supplied an vital cultural backdrop to the manufacturing. “We have been engaged on the play amid a sequence of centenary commemorations marking the Easter Rising in Eire and the lead-up to the formation of the Irish state, so it felt weirdly apposite.”

However, as McLaughlin found, decoding a century-old science fiction play for a Twenty first-century viewers presents its personal challenges. “The textual content itself was just a little dated, and we would have liked to discover a approach of constructing a view of the long run created up to now that also seemed just like the precise future.”

Čapek’s humanoid robotic employees and futuristic island setting present artists and administrators a chance to assemble distinctive stage designs. “Our set and costume designers created a world which was satisfyingly retro, however nonetheless otherworldly sufficient to help the manufacturing,” says McCoughlin. “The general design idea turned the lens via which we might discover some very existential questions on humanity.”


It’s straightforward to see how RUR has influenced science fiction storytelling, from Philip K Dick’s androids dreaming of electric sheep to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s perpetually returning terminator. There’s even a Rocky Horror Image Present-style rock musical impressed by RUR. Rob Susman, creator of Save the Robots, says: “It was a play I learn in class that all the time caught with me.” Though, as co-writer Jacques Lamarre factors out, the overt campness wasn’t essentially obvious in Čapek’s authentic. “Our model goes just a little additional by having the scientists sporting leather-based and panties,” he says.

RUR additionally featured within the burgeoning profession of a British movie icon. In 1986, Michael Caine appeared on the Wogan show and advised how his father, a fishmonger, had suggested him: “‘By no means do a job the place you could be changed by a machine” [pause]. So I turned an actor [laughter]. And the primary play I ever did, I performed a robotic [more laughter]. Very esoteric within the novice dramatics society, it was a play referred to as Rossum’s Common Robots, RUR. A critic within the South London Press mentioned, Mr Caine was very convincing as a robotic.”

To commemorate RUR’s centenary, a Prague-based mission, TheAItre, will stream a stay efficiency of the primary play ever written by robots. It will likely be accessible, free of charge, on 26 Febuary.

TheAItre is a collaboration between AI programmers, researchers and theatre representatives, who ask the query: do you suppose synthetic intelligence is ready to create a theatre script? Can it write a play about its personal father, Karel Čapek, who wrote about robots 100 years in the past? Rudolf Rosa, a robopsychology skilled from Charles College in Prague, has been utilizing the nickname RUR since his schooldays and was requested to guide the mission. Technically, it received’t be robots writing the play, as a result of as Rosa defined in a latest interview, “whereas robots exist and are used, not like classical concepts, they aren’t very clever in themselves. The intelligence is normally hidden elsewhere, in highly effective computer systems and servers in information centres. Robots are extra like puppets.”

Čapek’s robots acted as a warning reasonably than a prediction. RUR requested that we take into account the place a relentless pursuit of technological progress may lead humanity. Immediately, 100 years later, humanity, for essentially the most half, stays firmly answerable for its machines. However, who is aware of, maybe RUR’s 200-year anniversary will see each people and robots becoming a member of within the celebrations.

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