The Robot Was Born a Hundred Years Ago

Brigitte Helm as the maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

“Robot!” was what the painter Josef Čapek, his mouth full of paint brushes, said to his brother Karel, the writer, when asked what name he could give to an artificial assistant of mankind in the play that Karel was completing. Karel didn’t have too many second thoughts. Robot: the word was just right for his artificial character. It was also a familiar word: ‘robota’ in Czech and other Slavic languages, means ‘hard work’.

This scene took place exactly one hundred years ago. The play was called RUR or Rossum’s Universal Robots. The name Rossum means ‘intelligence’ in Slavic languages, so that the title already made clear that the play was about artificial intelligence, which was supposed to be at the service of mankind. That said, Čapek always recalled the horror he had felt when, a few years earlier, military technology had turned against mankind in the First World War. The writer was always fearful of the developments in artificial technology that he had observed over time, and in his play he described a rebellion of robots who end up dominating and defying mankind. The play was premiered in 1921, and had plenty of success in both European and American theatres, and was translated into thirty languages.

But above all, it gave the world the word ‘robot’. A word which would form the basis of a whole range of novels and films which, also after the Second World War Two, continued to uneasily follow the latest developments in robotics. Perhaps the best known is 2001, A Space Odyssey from 1968, which Stanley Kubrick adapted from some short stories by Arthur Clarke, which then became a novel of the same name. Here too, Hal the computer takes on human attributes and, when it feels threatened, rebels and becomes a murderer.

A few years ago, at Barcelona’s Festival Grec, I saw The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, staged by the Japanese Seinendan Theatre Company and the great theatrical innovator Oriza Hirata, who works both with actors and with androids and robots. When I entered the theatre, I imagined I was about to watch a dystopia about people who are dominated by the very machines that ought to be their servants. But no: in the play both androids and robots lived peacefully together with their human companions. An amusing caricature of a robot played the part of one of the sisters, just as an android did that of another sister; both became deeply involved, without wanting to, in the world of human emotions.

I have just read Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. His main characters have also left the fears of the 20th century behind. Located in the United States in a future which is not very far off from our present, the novel is about Klara, a robot which serves as the artificial friend of a teenage girl with health issues. Neither the teenager or her companions worry themselves about the philosophical questions regarding the nature of these technological marvels and neither do they imagine that there is any possibility that they will rebel: like any other machine, Klara is there to help them and when she becomes out-dated thanks to the introduction of more advanced models, she’s thrown on the scrapheap and that is that.

When I closed the book, I thought that a century after the appearance of the first threatening robot on the stage of Prague’s National Theatre, our vision of artificial intelligence has become richer than it was then. It has been a long journey, with wars and dictatorships and atomic bombs along the way. Many tasks have been robotized and not only in industry but also in our day to day lives. Robots are no longer objects of fear. Or are they?

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)