The first Robots were characters in a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R), first performed in 1921 in Prague. The play’s author, Karel Capek choose the robot as a character to comment on life and times in the early 20th Century. Many people view the robot as an object of technology and science but actually it is an object of avant-garde political theatre, that’s not to say it wasn’t deeply inspired by science and technology of the 20th Century, just that it was created as a way to critically comment on society.
The term robot is taken from the Slavic word for work, but Capek drew on a historical meaning of the word to do with exploitation. In the play the robots are created in factories and assembled on a production line like other manufactured objects, but the robots are made up of flesh and blood and therefore they are essentially human in their physical make-up.
The robot character was turned from a human into a machine in subsequent theatrical performances of the play. These artists and political activists celebrated the machine, often referred to as cultural movement of ‘machine modernism’. The machine was the vehicle to deliver a better society and social and individual life was imagined as a machine. It was no surprise then that this character, the robot, was made to work was turned into a machine. This change offended the author of the play and he was disturbed by how other artists took the robot and turned it into a machine. When the robot character started to become more widely known, the robot became synonymous with a machine in the public imagination and to some extent the cultural content that Capek created was lost.
There is much to say about the play and history of the period but two interesting facts are worth noting.
The first is that robots are often associated with destruction and transformation but Capek gave his robots this revolutionary edge because at the time there was so much political activism amongst working people. People tend to think that robots are about technological entities becoming too powerful, but actually the source of the revolutionary agency in the play was based on people, not technology.
The play is set in a future society where robots are manufactured to do all the work for humans. The formula that is used to make the robots is changed and this makes them develop feelings and consciousness and rebel against their place as slaves in the system. With this sense of agency the violent robots overthrow humanity, but they also destroy the formula used to create them. There is hope in the first play, and we get a sense that a new world can be created between two robots who are in love. However we never really know what happens to them. It is a mystery of the plot!
Secondly, as artists re-expressed the ‘fictional’ robot as a machine, it could then become possible to create in the ‘real world’ – or put another way, by the machinefication of the robot, making them could become as aspect of the fields of science, technology and industry and incorporated into their legitimate activities. There are definitely attempts to create the sophisticated robots found in this first play, but roboticists have a hard time doing this. What really happens is that roboticists create automaton but call them robots. Automatons are mechanical machines that operate on mechanical principles. Technological robots can have a nonhuman and humanoid form but the public usually imagines robots as human-like.