“Tell me, do you know where the word ‘robot’ comes from?”
This is a question that Alex, the young protagonist of my novel Monstrous Devices, is asked early in the story. Regular visitors to Science Focus will undoubtedly know the answer.
But even though he is a smart kid, with a particular passion for collecting old clockwork and battery-operated toy robots, Alex finds himself suddenly stumped. The word is so ubiquitous he simply never stopped to consider that it must have started somewhere. In common with many people, I’d guess, he would be entirely unaware that this year actually marks the 100th anniversary of its entry into the language.
It was in 1920, in Prague, that history’s first ever “robots” appeared, scribbled in longhand in the pages of R.U.R., a play written that year by the brilliant Czech writer Karel Čapek. The initials are explained in the subtitle: Rossum’s Universal Robots, the name of the company at the centre of the drama, a business devoted to making artificial people.
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Designed to carry out all the work and drudgery the factory’s owners assume humans would prefer not to, thereby freeing humankind to devote itself to finer, higher things – “You will be free and supreme: you will have no other task, no other work, no other cares than to perfect your own being…” – their robots are soon mass produced and sold in the millions around the world.
For a while – leaving aside passing mention of a luddist uprising by unemployed workers who started destroying their inhuman replacements, quickly quashed when it was decided to begin arming the robots for defence – all is well.
But the utopia doesn’t last. In a development that perhaps would not surprise fans of Blade Runner, Westworld, Terminator and countless other sci-fi fables to have appeared in R.U.R.’s wake, the robots, created to have superior physical and intellectual capacities than humans, revolt, turn on their masters, and slaughter everyone on the planet.
“The product of the human brain has escaped the control of human hands,” Čapek summed it up. He was keen to point out it was a comedy.
First performed in Prague in January 1921, R.U.R. was such a success that an English-language adaptation was on Broadway the following year. By 1923, the play had been translated into thirty languages, and the strange new word was already becoming implanted into our culture.
“Let me be a robot for two hours a day,” George Bernard Shaw quipped in 1923, referring to his opinion that having a repetitive, mechanical task to do worked wonders in allowing his mind to wander creatively – although he was quick to add, “but for the rest of the day let me be Bernard Shaw.”
By that decade’s end, “robot” was routinely being used as the noun for, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, “a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.”
Čapek was hardly the first to come up with a story about the creation of artificial life, of course. As in most cases, the ancient Greeks beat everyone to the punch, with the first automata appearing in the tales of Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith, who wowed the rest of the gods on Mount Olympus with the metal servants he crafted at his forge.
Closer, geographically, to Čapek lay the 16th Century tale of the Golem Of Prague, his hometown’s most famous legend, about the mighty man of clay crafted by the mystical Rabbi Loew – another fable in which the creation catastrophically escapes its creator’s control. But, although he could not fail to have been aware of the golem story, Čapek insisted it was never a conscious inspiration for R.U.R.
More difficult to escape is the influence of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. Yet here is a curious thing. While “Frankenstein” has similarly entered the language, invoked as shorthand in any discussion of the dangers of unchecked scientists “playing god,” the word always carries with it the echo of its source story, the shadow of the monster.
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Conversely, “robot” has long since slipped free of the cautionary tale of its birth, to the point where few know where it originated at all.
This is all the stranger given that the word was originally chosen precisely for its political resonance. Karel Čapek always made a point of crediting his brother, Josef, an artist, as the true originator of the term.
While writing the piece, Karel toyed with calling his artificial people “labors,” but was dissatisfied, and turned to Josef for advice. Josef’s suggestion derived from the Czech word “robota,” which referred to a system of forced serf labour, under which it was compulsory to work the land of the local feudal lord – a form of peasant slavery, abolished in 1848.
As with EM Forster’s astonishing The Machine Stops – the 1909 short story that eerily predicts both the internet epoch and its cataclysmic collapse – R.U.R. looks more prescient with every passing year.
Čapek’s story remains fit for purpose as a sly satire of the rush to give ourselves over into the embrace of artificial intelligence. The proclamations of the factory owners about how their work will benefit humanity – “There’ll be no more poverty. Yes, people will be out of work, but by then there’ll be no work left to be done. Everything will be done by living machines” – could be the words of any contemporary Silicon Valley visionary proselytising a fully automated tomorrow, in which Universal Basic Income will free the mass unemployed to take up flower arranging.
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However, as with most great science fiction, Čapek was not attempting to predict the future, but writing about his own times. He began R.U.R. in the moment when unalloyed, unambivalent optimism about a better future brought about by technological advance had been shattered by the experience of the First World War, in which scientific developments allowed for a kind of slaughter never seen before. Meanwhile, Russia’s “robota” class had just staged a revolution of their own.
As a journalist, watching the rise of totalitarian regimes across Europe in the 1930s, Čapek became known as one of the leading anti-fascist commentators of the period. His writing, the ideas, style and attitude of his plays, stories and criticism, brought him to the attention of the Nazis, who named him “public enemy number two” in Czechoslovakia.
When they invaded the country in 1938, the Gestapo came looking for him, unaware he had died a few months earlier, cut down by pneumonia aged 48. They found Josef Čapek, though. The true originator of the word “robot” died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.
But part of him has become immortal. “Robot” is one of very few Czech words to have entered our global lexicon. (Another is “pistol,” but that’s another story.) It’s a small word, yet it carries a lot of history, and a vast, uncertain future. You can hardly hear it now, but remember: every time we say it, we whisper a warning.
Monstrous Devices by Damien Love is out on 19 March 2020 (£12.99, Oneworld Publications).