The Word “Robot” Originated in a Czech Play in 1921: Discover Karel Čapek’s Sci-Fi Play R.U.R. (a.k.a. Rossum’s Universal Robots)

When I hear the word robot, I like to imag­ine Isaac Asimov’s delight­ful­ly Yid­dish-inflect­ed Brook­ly­nese pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the word: “ro-butt,” with heavy stress on the first syl­la­ble. (A quirk shared by Futu­ra­ma’s crus­tacean Doc­tor Zoid­berg.) Asi­mov warned us that robots could be dan­ger­ous and impos­si­ble to con­trol. But he also showed young readers—in his Nor­by series of kids’ books writ­ten with his wife Janet—that robots could be hero­ic com­pan­ions, sav­ing the solar sys­tem from cos­mic supervil­lains.

The word robot con­jures all of these asso­ci­a­tions in sci­ence fic­tion: from Blade Run­ner’s repli­cants to Star Trek’s Data. We might refer to these par­tic­u­lar exam­ples as androids rather than robots, but this con­fu­sion is pre­cise­ly to the point. Our lan­guage has for­got­ten that robots start­ed in sci-fi as more human than human, before they became Asi­mov-like machines. Like the sci-fi writer’s pro­nun­ci­a­tion of robot, the word orig­i­nat­ed in East­ern Europe in 1921, the year after Asimov’s birth, in a play by Czech intel­lec­tu­al Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or “Rossum’s Uni­ver­sal Robots.”

The title refers to the cre­ations of Mr. Rossum, a Franken­stein-like inven­tor and pos­si­ble inspi­ra­tion for Metrop­o­lis’s Rot­wang (who was him­self an inspi­ra­tion for Dr. Strangelove). Čapek told the Lon­don Sat­ur­day Review after the play pre­miered that Rossum was a “typ­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­al­ism of the last [nine­teenth] cen­tu­ry,” with a “desire to cre­ate an arti­fi­cial man—in the chem­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal, not mechan­i­cal sense.”

Rossum did not wish to play God so much as “to prove God to be unnec­es­sary and absurd.” This was but one stop on “the road to indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion.” As tech­nol­o­gy ana­lyst and Penn State pro­fes­sor John M. Jor­dan writes at the MIT Press Read­er, Čapek’s robots were not appli­ances become sen­tient, nor trusty, super­pow­ered side­kicks. They were, in fact, invent­ed to be slaves.

The robot… was a cri­tique of mech­a­niza­tion and the ways it can dehu­man­ize peo­ple. The word itself derives from the Czech word “rob­o­ta,” or forced labor, as done by serfs. Its Slav­ic lin­guis­tic root, “rab,” means “slave.” The orig­i­nal word for robots more accu­rate­ly defines androids, then, in that they were nei­ther metal­lic nor mechan­i­cal.

Jor­dan describes this his­to­ry in an excerpt from his book Robots, part of the MIT Press Essen­tial Knowl­edge Series, and a time­li­er than ever inter­ven­tion in the cul­tur­al and tech­no­log­i­cal his­to­ry of robots, who walk (and moon­walk) among us in all sorts of machine forms, if not quite yet in the sense Čapek imag­ined. But a Blade Run­ner-like sce­nario seemed inevitable to him in a soci­ety ruled by “utopi­an notions of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy.”

In the time he imag­ines, he says, “the prod­uct of the human brain has escaped the con­trol of human hands.” Čapek has one char­ac­ter, the robot Radius, make the point plain­ly:

The pow­er of man has fall­en. By gain­ing pos­ses­sion of the fac­to­ry we have become mas­ters of every­thing. The peri­od of mankind has passed away. A new world has arisen. … Mankind is no more. Mankind gave us too lit­tle life. We want­ed more life.

Sound famil­iar? While R.U.R. owes a “sub­stan­tial” debt to Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, it’s also clear that Čapek con­tributed some­thing orig­i­nal to the cri­tique, a vision of a world in which “humans become more like their machines,” writes Jor­dan. “Humans and robots… are essen­tial­ly one and the same.” Beyond the sur­face fears of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, the play that intro­duced the word robot to the cul­tur­al lex­i­con also intro­duced the dark­er social cri­tique in most sto­ries about them: We have rea­son to fear robots because in cre­at­ing them, we’ve recre­at­ed our­selves; then we’ve treat­ed them the way we treat each oth­er.

You can find the text of Čapek’s play in book for­mat on Ama­zon.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

Twerk­ing, Moon­walk­ing AI Robots–They’re Now Here

The Robots of Your Dystopi­an Future Are Already Here: Two Chill­ing Videos Dri­ve It All Home

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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