Robots are ubiquitous in science fiction. There’s the robots with a personality and desires of their own like Bender from Futurama or Data from Star Trek. There’s the subservient robots that dot the background of most sci-fi stories. But there’s also the robots with a darker side like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the rogue replicants from Blade Runner. Speculative science fiction has long been examining human relationships with artificial intelligence and how creatures of our own creation might reject human dominion. What you probably didn’t know is that this speculation goes all the way back to 1920 with the original usage of the word “robot.”
The word robot is derived from the old slavonic word “robota” meaning, as Professor Howard Markel, a professor of medicinal history at the University of Michigan, puts it: “serf/slave labor.” On its face, this would seem that from the very beginning that in fiction robots were seen as another outlet for man to enslave others. But in fiction, it often plays out differently.
In order to understand the history of robots and the context for their creation, we –believe it or not– have to go back to World War I.
While not the only factor, nationalism played a role in sparking unrest across Europe, with many ethnic groups looking to throw off the shackles of empire and establish their own nations. When the war ended in 1918 borders were redrawn throughout Europe, including the creation of a new state, Czechoslovakia. Having once been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the area of Czechoslovakia fell prey to a similar pattern of industrialization that areas all across Europe did. Looking to catch up with England, countries pushed their workers to the limit, leading to inhumane work conditions not unlike the conditions seen under feudalism. These conditions led to a wave of Communist parties gaining strength across Europe and, even if not completely Communist in nature, many people became vocal opponents of work practices.
One such vocal dissident to the practices of the times was Karel Čapek, a writer and self declared follower of American liberalism of the time. Čapek’s writings focused on essays and science fiction, a genre where speculation about real world issues can run wild through the use of allegory and metaphor. One particular case of this is in Čapek’s 1920 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, or R.U.R.
R.U.R tells the story of a company that mass-produces humanoid robots in three acts. In the first act, Helena Glory, daughter of President Glory, the head of an unnamed industrial country that is fueling its economy with robot labor comes to the robot factory, disguising her true motives. The group spend most of the first act discussing what it means to have a soul and how the robots act. Domin, the lead scientist, continually stresses that robots are not people and because of this, any inhumane action of his is justified as it prevents people from doing menial, dangerous work. After some heady discussion about the nature of the soul and a display from the scientists that proves telling robot from human is very difficult, Helena reveals her true reason for coming to the factory: to expose the poor treatment of the artificial humans and shut it down. Helena is unable to shut down the factory, and after speaking to several robots, comes to the conclusion (mostly of her own volition) that while some go mad and are terminated, the majority are content with subservience as it is all they know. Held as a captive and forced into marrying Domin, Helena stays at the factory.
Act II begins ten years to the day since the events of Act I. Helena and Domin spend some time reminiscing about what has transpired since her arrival, but this is cut short when Domin is called away and frantically leaves. While he’s gone, Helena reads the newspaper to find that a military force staffed entirely by robots has led an uprising against the government in Spain, killing thousands of civilians in the process. Tragedies like this seem to be happening all over the world, but with armies led mostly by robots, they’re beginning to revolt. Not only have robots all over the world begun uprising against human governments, human birth rates are declining. As one of the scientists puts it “people are becoming superfluous.” With weapons and the goal of wiping out all of their slavers, the robots turn their sights on the factory and the scientists that brought them into the world. With the robots approaching and Helena unable to convince the scientists to stop production as they fear the economic repercussions, Helena, in secret, burns the master plans for creating robots.
With the robots on the shore of the island holding the factory, Act III begins. The robots begin to lay siege on the factory. Shorter than the rest, Act III largely serves to show the deaths of every human character save one. They weep, they make excuses, but ultimately each is killed by the robots. The only person left alive, Chief Engineer Alquist, is spared because the robots feel sympathy for him. “He works with his hands like the robots” says the leader of the revolution, a robot named Radius. With only one human left alive, the robots demand he make more of them, and enslave him.
The play ends with an epilogue, years later. Alquist, unable to recreate new robots without the plans Helena destroyed lives a miserable existence in the factory. He argues with Radius and several of his robot cronies when they bare their motivations for revolution: “You gave us firearms… We had to become masters… Slaughter and domination are necessary if you would be human beings.” Unable to breed and with no ability grow their population, the robots have ultimately authored their own demise. As the play ends, Alquist discovers two robots that have developed romantic feelings for one another: Primus and Helena (named after the Helena from earlier in the play). Thinking this could mean the continuation of the robots is possible despite their previous inability to breed (as they were also previously unable to feel love), Alquist tells them, with tears in his eyes, “Go, Adam, go, Eve. The world is yours.”
R.U.R is a story about the cycles of violence that people become trapped in. The humans bring robots into the world solely to enslave them, the robots rise up and kill the humans. Ultimately, it’s Alquist’s move of telling the robot Adam and Eve to leave and go free that sets them free from this chain of violence. Čapek’s play can easily read as anti-capitalist sentiment, which it definitely is, but as a critic of communist practices as well, his fears of a cycle of violence ring out across history. Communist revolutions in the 20th century often resulted in governments just as oppressive as the ones before the revolutions.
Čapek’s story holds a lasting effect because the lessons it looks to teach still have not been learned by everybody, even today. This contribution to the science fiction canon is one that just keeps on giving. Its spirit lives on in stories like Blade Runner, Ex Machina, and Westworld. So sit back, give it a read, and remember to thank your Amazon Echo next time you ask it for something. Just in case.