Monday, May 23

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

“Listen, Josef,” Czech playwright Karel Čapek told his brother. “I have an idea for a play.”

Josef, an artist of some renown, painted furiously and was unimpressed by his brother’s intrusion. “What kind of game?” he asked sharply. Karel laid out the plot. In the future, humans have created synthetic humanoid creatures to increase productivity in factories and fight wars on the battlefield. Built as slaves, they will eventually rise up and wipe out the human race.

Josef was indifferent to the idea. “Then write it down!” he said. But Karel was stuck. He couldn’t think of the appropriate word to describe his artificial workers. “Call them roboti,” Josef said. This was the Czech word for serf or forced laborer.

Karel decided that the word robot fit the bill. The game, Rossum universal robots (RUR), premiered in Prague in January 1921. The exchange with his brother it was relayed by Karel Čapek in a newspaper some years later, reflecting on how he introduced the word robot to the world when the play premiered in January 2021, now exactly 100 years ago.

The play was a success. An original work of science fiction, it fueled early 20th century fears about the role of technology in driving mass production after WWI. RURThe nightmarish, daring vision of a future in which humanity is threatened by robots caused a sensation.

Kara Reilly is an academic, playwright, and author of Automata and mimesis on the stage of theater history. In her book, she says: “Everyone in the audience would have known someone who died as a result of the war, and the idea of ​​robot replacements for soldiers would have been compelling.

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“With the use of tanks, zeppelins and photographic images, the First World War was a showcase for emerging technology. Suddenly, it made people realize the very real possibility of the destruction of the human race by their own machine-based creations. “

Čapek robots fueled the debate over whether technology could free workers and eradicate manual labor. As Reilly comments: “These slaves have the potential to transform the world into a paradise for human beings. Partly, RUR it interrogates and satirizes the modernist struggle between capital and labor to forge a paradise for workers ”.

The first English translation came to Broadway in 1922, with a young Spencer Tracy. A year later, it was playing in the West End at the St Martin Theater, with a critic in the Pall Mall Gazette commenting: “Robots are quite disturbing with their heavy, expressionless faces and automaton gestures. When one goes out, the poor soulless Robots still seem to be huddled together: in the street, the tube elevator, the train hanging by straps. Curious effect! It may be true?”

The 'T-800 Endoskeleton' from the 1991 film Terminator 2 offers a less than benign glimpse into the robot age.
The ‘T-800 Endoskeleton’ from the 1991 film Terminator 2 offers a less than benign glimpse into the robot age. Photography: REX

RUR it was captivating and terrifying for the audience. In 1927, it was the first full-length play that the BBC aired in its entirety, and later, in 1938, it became the world’s first televised science fiction work when a half-hour program went live on the BBC.

“I think the ideas in RUR they have continued to influence science fiction culture, even on an unconscious level, ”says award-winning and successful science fiction author Stephen Baxter. “Čapek robots rebelled, like robots since then, since The terminator to The Simpsons.

“Today we think more of possibly disembodied AI than humanoids, but the moral dilemmas are the same. How do you control the robots? I don’t believe Čapek I thought about all this consciously, but he gave us a fable, almost a biblical parable, to allow us to explore these themes. Coining the word ‘robot’ was a new idea to explore both in fiction and in science itself. “

While Čapek’s invention of the ‘robot’ proved to be culturally and scientifically significant, RURThe popularity waned, and today the work is largely unknown.

Caitriona McLaughlin is an Irish theater director who directed the The 2017 Irish National Youth Theater production RUR at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. “I was looking for a work that tried to articulate who we are as a species and what kind of moral code we want to establish for ourselves,” he explains. “RUR I tapped into some very contemporary themes that I knew a young cast would respond to, in particular an over-reliance on technology. “The uprising and revolt theme also provided an important cultural background to the production.” We were working on the play in in the middle of a series of centennial commemorations marking the Easter Rising in Ireland and the run-up to the formation of the Irish state, so it felt oddly timely. “

But, as McLaughlin discovered, performing a century-old work of science fiction for a 21st-century audience presents its own challenges. “The text itself was a bit outdated, and we needed to find a way to build a vision of the future created in the past that still looked like the real future.”

Čapek’s humanoid robot workers and futuristic island setting provide artists and directors with the opportunity to assemble distinctive set designs. “Our set and costume designers created a world that was satisfyingly retro, but still otherworldly enough to support the production,” says McCoughlin. “The overall design concept became the lens through which we were able to explore some very existential questions about humanity.”

It’s easy to see how RUR has influenced science fiction narrative, from Philip K Dick’s Androids Dreaming of Electric Sheep to the perpetual terminator of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is even a Rocky Horror Picture ShowRUR-inspired rock-style musical. Rob Susman, creator of Save the robots, says: “It was a play that I read in school that always stayed with me.” Although, as co-writer Jacques Lamarre points out, open campness was not necessarily evident in the Čapek original. “Our version goes a bit further by having scientists wear leather and panties,” he says.

RUR also featured in the burgeoning career of a British film icon. In 1986, Michael Caine appeared on the show Wogan and he recounted how his father, a fishmonger, had advised him: “Never do a job in which you can be replaced by a machine” [pause]. So I became an actor [laughter]. And the first play I did, I played a robot [more laughter]. Very esoteric in amateur theater society, it was a play called Rossum universal robots, RUR. A critic in the South London Press He said, Mr. Caine was very convincing as a robot. “

To commemorate RURcentenary, a project based in Prague, TheAItre, will broadcast a live presentation of the first work written by robots. It will be available, free of charge, on February 26.

TheAItre is a collaboration between AI programmers, researchers and theater representatives, asking the question: do you think artificial intelligence is capable of creating a theatrical script? Can you write a play about your own father, Karel Čapek, who wrote about robots 100 years ago? Rudolf Rosa, an expert in robopsychology at Charles University in Prague, has been using the nickname RUR since his school days and was asked to lead the project. Technically, it will not be the robots that will write the work, because as Rosa explained in a recent interview, “although robots exist and are used, unlike classical ideas, they are not very intelligent in themselves. Intelligence is often hidden elsewhere, in powerful computers and servers in data centers. Robots are more like puppets. “

The Čapek robots acted more as a warning than a prediction. RUR He asked that we consider where humanity’s relentless pursuit of technological progress might lead. Today, 100 years later, humanity, for the most part, is firmly in control of its machines. But who knows, maybe RURThe 200 year anniversary will see humans and robots join in the celebrations.

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