Where Do Robots Come From?

The first robots were born on January 25, 1921, the day Karl Capek's play R.U.R. premiered in Prague, more than 80 years before Skynet achieved sentience and declared, "I think, therefore you're all toast."

R.U.R. introduced audiences to the term "robot" (from the Czech word "robota," meaning labor or servitude), and gave humanity its first glimpse of a world conquered by machines.

Ironically, given the subject matter, Capek felt betrayed by his own creation. The French author Romain Rolland sat with Capek during one of the early performances, and recalled that Capek kept apologizing for the play's poor quality and pleaded for him not to watch.

Capek needn't have worried: critics and theatergoers were enthralled. Performances of the play-a thinly veiled critique of technocracy and capitalist greed-were staged in cities throughout Europe and the United States. Roman Dyboksi, a Polish professor of literature living in London, wrote an article in the June 1923 journal, Slavonic Review Essays, which captured the mood of the audience:

That something tragic and overwhelming is about to happen is the feeling which grips you at once when, in the opening scene of R.U.R., you behold the automatic girl typist at work, with her uncanny efficiency and inhumanly expressionless white face; and when you hear her say, in even tones, to a sympathetic human girl, that she will "cease to move" after they have cut her open.

The robots in R.U.R. were not mechanical beings, but biological creations more akin to the later "replicants" of Blade Runner or the "skinjob" Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. Capek's robots were cooked-up in vats containing a chemical protoplasm and then given shape through "kneading troughs" and "stamping mills." The process was invented by a character known only as "Old Rossum," who was obsessed with one-upping God by creating artificial human beings. But the inventor's son saw moneymaking potential in the robots and created a simpler version to be mass-produced and sold as inexpensive workers. Thus, the company Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.) was born.

In the play, things take a turn for the worse when an idealistic young woman, Helena, appears on the scene. She is determined to end the exploitation of her fleshbot brethren and cajoles the chief engineer into restoring their humanity and giving them souls. But, no sooner do the robots become self-aware than they launch a war to exterminate the inferior human race. (That proves not to be such a difficult goal since human fertility is in decline-the world's drive toward mechanization has apparently made people superfluous.) The robot leader declares:

We will give birth by machine. We will build a thousand steam-powered mothers. From them will pour forth a river of life. Nothing but life! Nothing but Robots!

Not so fast, Megatron: Helena, realizing her mistake, destroys the recipe for the robot-making process-which pisses off her mechanized overlords, since they have a mere twenty-year lifespan. The robots try to manufacture new robots, but succeed only in producing "bloody chunks of meat." Just when everything seems lost for both robots and humankind, two robots display human feelings and fall in love. They ride off into the sunset as the new Adam and Eve, leaving audiences to wonder: All this has happened before, will it happen again?

R.U.R. wasn't exactly a typical night out at the theater, but it clearly struck a chord with audiences who had recently witnessed the unprecedented destruction that technology had wrought during World War I. "Great drama has arrived," declared an LA Times film critic; "one of the most notable achievements of the Copley Theatre," said the Boston Globe.

Poet Carl Sandburg was also a fan. After a New York Times columnist wrote an article citing R.U.R. as an example of subversive, anti-American propaganda, Sandburg penned a lengthy rebuke lecturing the Times on the differences between propaganda and allegory. He concluded with the observation:

In its various windings, R.U.R. is significant, important, teasing, quizzical, funny, terrible, paradoxical. It has its kinship with the strongest plays of Henrik Ibsen, who fought many years against the view that his dramas set forth propaganda, his own thought being that his plots and characters only ask big and terrible questions, leaving the answers to those who choose to fathom the depths of their minds for answers.

Another celebrity fanboy was H.G. Wells who, in 1927, wrote a scathing review of Metropolis (the "silliest film" he had ever seen) and faulted the movie for its complete lack of originality: "Capek's robots have been lifted without apology."

R.U.R. would undergo several subsequent revivals, and each generation read new meaning into the play based upon current events. In 1923, Dyboski saw the robot revolt as a reenactment of:

That ghastly real scene which had been played in exactly the same way over and over again in the houses of factory managers in the Urals and other industrial regions of Russia only a few short years ago. There the revolted automata had been Russian Bolshevik working-men of flesh and blood, as imperfectly and unsuccessfully humanized as the ‘Robots' in the play.

In the 1930s and 1940s, R.U.R. became a commentary on fascism. The New York Times observed in 1939, shortly after Capek's death:

If the late Karel Capek had lived a little longer, he would have seen the first act of his fantastic play R.U.R. come horribly true, and among his own countrymen…Germany, in taking over the Czech race, body, and soul, has already started remaking them into robots….Their only function is to work for the benefit of the Nazi state and without even the right to an opinion of their own condition.

A 1942 revival of the play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre printed a quote from FDR in its program:

We exult in the thought that it is the young, free men and women of the United Nations, and not the wound-up robots of the slave states, who will mold the shape of the new world.

Perhaps the most peculiar revival was a 1950 production that was staged at the behest of MIT professor Norbert Wiener-the pioneering researcher who created the field of cybernetics. Wiener saw the play as an opportunity to deliver a lecture on his theories and introduce the media to his box-and-wheels robot creation, "Palomilla." Unfortunately, his message was somewhat overshadowed by the stumblings of the young MIT engineers turned thespians. The Harvard Crimson wrote:

R. U. R. suffered from the stock-in-trade faults of amateur theater. The flats fell down backstage, and the actors blew their lines. The important last act of the play was omitted for simplicity…. Professor Wiener, like Capek, has thought and written about the influence of the machine on society. In his prologue, Wiener pointed out that Capek was mistaken in postulating a society based on universal robots, that we were leaning more to specialized machines that faithfully perform specific tasks.

Then the professor turned towards one wing of the tiny stage, clapped, and commanded: "Here, Palomilla!" Palomilla nosed out from behind a curtain, a buzzing four-wheeled cart which doggedly trailed a flashlight held by Wiener's assistant. Palomilla made mistakes; it ran back into the curtain once and stalled often. But it acted with at least as much decision and far more speed than an earthworm.
When Palomilla had crept offstage, Professor Wiener pointed out that "this is a simple animal," and described some of Palomilla's more modern descendents. Then he leaned over at the audience and said the time was gone when we could afford to make machines for the sake of making machines, that to avoid a society of R. U. R. we would have to start worrying about the moral value of the machines, deciding whether they were good or bad. "The engineer must become more and more a poet," said Professor Wiener, and Palomilla buzzed once more, quietly, behind its curtain.

In the years since, the idea of a robot rebellion has been the fodder for countless sci-fi films, albeit with (mostly) better production values. But, out of all of them, I find Ron Moore's vision of Battlestar Galactica to be most reminiscent of R.U.R.: A robotic slave race that evolves and revolts-believing that the complete destruction of the human race is its divine right, yet ultimately failing to achieve true humanity through its inability to reproduce.

And both productions present the idea that human beings are ultimately destroyed not by their creations, but by their fallibilities. In one scene of R.U.R., a scientist defends the dream of manufacturing robots, saying the goal was to liberate the human race from the drudgery of labor. Another character responds:

Old Rossum thought only of his godless hocus-pocus and young Rossum of his billions. And that wasn't the dream of your R.U.R. shareholders either. They dreamed of the dividends. And on those dividends humanity will perish.

Bill Adama couldn't have said it better himself. Well, actually he did, during his speech at Battlestar Galactica's decommissioning ceremony:

Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed and spite, jealousy, and we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we've done, like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. And when that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn't our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you've created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can't hide from the things that you've done anymore.

So say we all. Arguably, though, this is just a fancified way of restating Frankenstein Ethics 101: Don't play God, because we're not yet up to the task. But, R.U.R. embraces another theme, one that is unique to the mass production of robots: the ethics of creating a servile race. Sitting in a darkened theater more than 85 years ago, Roman Dyboksi was compelled to reflect:

The play makes us ponder the truth irritatingly repeated from time to time by cynics, and never pleasant to hear, that high culture always rests on a solid foundation of human slavery.

Indeed, it's a truism we still confront today. No matter how much "fair trade" coffee we try to gulp down, in the back of our minds is the uncomfortable fact that our standard of living too often depends on the exploitation of others. So, with all due respect to the late Professor Norbert Wiener, the real issue is not the morality we endow upon our machines, but the morality we endow upon ourselves. The scenario that Karl Capek dreamed up as allegory is now edging closer to reality. If we do succeed in creating truly sentient, artificial intelligence, will we see such beings as our equals or our slaves?

Mark Strauss is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine.