Karel Čapek: R.U.R.

February 6, 2021

     I think it’s pretty well-known that the word robot comes from the Czech word for work, and was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1922 play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). I’ve just gone back to the play, which I first sought out in the 1980s.

Rossum originally set out to make artificial humans, but his son realised that a simplified, and more functional version would be cheaper and more profitable; soon these creations flood the world and take over almost all human tasks. The unbelieving heroine is shown as unable to tell the difference between human and robot, and then we are in the territory of, is there any real difference? Aren’t these creatures de-humanising humans by taking over their tasks? Our heroine belongs to an organisation that would give robots ‘human rights’; their creator thinks that everything will be produced so cheaply and plentifully that humans will be able to just help themselves to whatever they need…

It’s a play, and the dialogue is rather wooden. It reminds me of some of Shaw’s plays, though a kinder comparison would be with the kind of theatre Brecht was developing around the same time.

Things do not turn out as planned. Five years elapse between the first act and the remainder of the play, during which time humans have used robots as soldiers, wars are being fought everywhere, it’s clear that sometimes robots go berserk, and that they increasingly despise inefficient and useless human beings, who are gradually dying out because they have no real purpose any more. The robots set about eliminating the last of our species. Unfortunately, the papers detailing how the robots are made, are destroyed.

Only one human survives, and the robots expect him to be able to reconstruct the recipe for making more of them, as they only have a 20-year lifespan. He cannot, and strangely, the robots become more despairing as they foresee their eventual disappearance; there is some essence of humanity in the final robot prototype and the last human finds himself in the position of God in Genesis; the ending is at once blindingly obvious, very clever and also highly satirical.

The play R.U.R. is now a curiosity more than anything, I think, and yet extremely prophetic in the issues it raises and foregrounds, and it deserves revisiting in these days of AI, if only for the purpose of making us think a little more deeply and clearly about what is going on, and what we may be preparing for our futures. Military use of robotics is already, frighteningly, well under-way. Human redundancy in many areas of the workplace has already begun. Can we be sure that robots will always act in our best interests, benevolently obeying Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics? We should not be so complacent…

One Response to “Karel Čapek: R.U.R.”

  1. cooperatoby Says:

    Oh no, here’s _another_ one I’ve now got to read!

    Like


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