January 25th will mark the 100-year anniversary of a significant milestone in science fiction: The first showing of the play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), in 1921. For those who don’t know, this was a play about artificially-designed servants, their desire to be treated like real people, and the robot rebellion that resulted in the extinction of the human race.
The robots in RUR weren’t, in fact, made from metal and plastic the way our modern image of robots are depicted; rather, they were created from laboratory-created biologic materials, and so could have been more accurately referred to as “synthetic beings” in modern vernacular. Nevertheless, they have become synonymous with the concept of the “mechanical man,” along with the word “roboti” coined for them by Czech writer Karel Čapek.
And in giving us these synthetic beings, and a name for them, Čapek was responsible for the worst thing that ever happened to the reference and depiction of robots, in real life and in fiction; a stigma that haunts robotics to this day.
In Czech, robota means forced labour of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters’ lands and is derived from the word rab, meaning “slave.” (Wikipedia)
There was no secret that the robots in RUR were intended to be laborers under human control—in other words, slaves. As the robots were performed by humans in odd clothing designed to accentuate their “different”-ness, they represented figurative stand-ins for “the enslaved other,” generally the poor, the immigrant, the minority, etc. And in 1921 Europe and in America, the concept of enslaved peoples were still fresh in the minds of many, including former slave owners and the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution who struggled to maintain control over their workers.
Hence, the later rebellion of the robots suggested to society the very real concept of the rebellion of slaves (and workers) against their masters. This was something the upper crust was already apprehensive about; so the robots not only represented one of their worst fears in the real world, but they became inexorably tied to it as symbols of that fear: Robots were strange, non-human machines capable of destroying and even replacing them.
Though RUR helped popularize the concept of robots in sci-fi, later science fiction stories and movies would emulate the play’s inherent fear: Only a few years later, Thea Von Harbou’s 1924 novel and Fritz Lang’s 1926 movie Metropolis depicted a humanoid robot designed to replace human workers in the machine rooms. The novel suggested that the robot—which had various names attached to it, including Futura (future man) and Parody (of a man)—was created by the story’s chief scientist in a synthetic way, similar to RUR’s robots; but the movie depicted a purely mechanical creation. The robot would eventually go on a rampage of seduction and sedition, drawing the poor, destitute and clearly dumb workers into rioting and destroying the city before it was caught and, like a witch of old, burned at the stake.
And Metropolis‘ robot wouldn’t be the last to instill fear in the hearts of readers or moviegoers. Well- and cheaply-made robot monsters featured heavily in sci-fi movies, usually threatening a screaming heroine before being dispatched by the handsome hero. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories featured capable but ultimately dumb-as-a-rock robots that threatened humans or each other until a clever scientist could break through their logical conundrum and save everyone (including the robot). Robots were commonly depicted on TV shows like Star Trek, and were always not-quite-human objects to be dispatched by the Enterprise crew.
As the real world developed, robots began to take places in factories, replacing human workers. These real-world robots looked nothing like the humans they replaced, as their engineers optimized them for specific tasks that humans often could not do as well, or as fast, or as accurately in endless repetition. Although humans lost jobs and livelihoods to these robots, they were grudgingly accepted into modern automated factories, improving products and lowering costs to prove their worth.
But in the fictional world, robots were almost always depicted as humanoid-shaped machines, often stronger or faster than men, but without the refined ability to think like men. Anthropomorphist designs forced the comparisons between robots and human beings. Book and movie robots generally went through mental malfunctions, similar to fevered or drunken rampages, that would cause them to run amok and destroy people and property. They were still being depicted similarly to the idea of the “other,” especially the downtrodden slave or former slave, who was generally thought of as strong but stupid, more of a threat to society and “good people,” especially if given enough rope to act on its own behalf.
By mid-century, the dangerous robot was a well-established sci-fi trope, and was beginning to move beyond its humanoid roots. Colossus: The Forbin Project presented a powerful computer that, when given control of the country’s defensive systems, promptly took over and killed any humans that threatened it. Only a few years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted the automated system of the space ship Discovery “going crazy” and killing all but one member of the crew in systematic fashion. Today, the robots of the Terminator franchise’s Skynet have become synonymous with killer robots taking over the world. And modern robots, like those of the Blade Runner movies, are often depicted as being every much a human’s physical and mental better, much more capable of destroying humans and taking their place.
In contrast, some of the most popular robots in fiction are part of the Star Wars universe, such as the very capable but non-humanoid and non-threatening R2D2 and BB-8 or the silent and efficient drones from Silent Running, the friendly robot Johnny-5 from Short Circuit or the titular robot Wall-E; it’s hard to deny that their lack of an anthropomorphic shape (and often their smaller stature, suggesting childlike innocence and guileless dependence) contributes to their non-threatening appearance and their image as more of a pet than an equal. Their exceptions demonstrate the rule, the cultural fear of the “other man” borne of Čapek’s concept.
The concept of the humanoid robot has been intentionally used to explore aspects of humanity in fiction over the years; but almost always as a negative object, either incapable of or unwilling to be more like “real human beings,” and somehow threatening the status quo or the very lives of those around it. They are, at best, unpredictable and stupid, and at worst, potential terrorists.
As history has unfolded, it’s reasonable to argue that many real-world automated systems and products have been delayed, avoided or ultimately distrusted and unused by a public educated and informed by those old robotic stereotypes; and the cause can be directly attributed to the direct comparison between the concept and popular appearance of fictional robots with humans and slaves as they’ve been burned into our cultural framework, starting with RUR. Čapek’s unfortunate turn of an image and phrase evolved into the science-inspired Golems of our modern nightmares.
Perhaps, if another name that didn’t mean “slave” had been used by Čapek… perhaps if his play’s synthetics had looked like vacuum cleaners, tool cabinets or beach balls… perhaps our mechanical helpers would be seen in a very different light today. Perhaps we’d be more willing to use them, to trust them. Perhaps this would be a more efficiently automated, more mechanically-trusting world. And perhaps we wouldn’t be as fast to cast a wary eye in their direction.