R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek (translated and recorded for BBC radio)
RUR stands out for that third R, the first place robot was used to describe mechanical golems. In Capek’s play, the robots are more like the modern cylons in BSG, indistinguishable from humans. The play tells the tale of the island factory where the robots are made, the worldwide demand for robot labor fast bottoming out the world work economy. The people who make the robots want to use them to introduce utopia, but the people who run nations use them to fight wars. Only instead of following the advice from The Simpsons and sending the robots into space to fight wars, they fight on the ground. Eventually, the robots decide they don’t need any of us and turn all Agent Smith. Some thoughts:
- Asimov called this a pretty terrible play, but I disagree. I didn’t think it was amazing or even all that good, but the idea Capek thinks through had been and continues to be a central concern for SF writers and A.I. researchers alike. And the Alice in Wonderland character of the scientists works well for me. The play is hampered by the external realities of all the actions. There are only so many things that we can be happy to let happen off stage. It would be interesting to see how this might be restaged in modern parlance. Oh wait, The Matrix.
- Asimov’s three rules seem really important in the light of the robot revolution here. Capek suggests at one point that the problem stems from having given the robots weapons. In today’s terms, it seems the problem will stem from giving the robots(agents) r/w permission on our databases.
- Interestingly, Capek doesn’t consider data storage at all — everything is still done on paper and there’s only two copies of the secret to making the robots live.
- Spoiler. There’s some religious stuff at the end that’s interesting. Capek gives two robots (in conversation with the last surviving human) emotions and love for one another. The human suggests that they should go be happy, and multiply. He even calls them a new Adam and Eve, suggesting that he himself represents mankind’s Godliness. They were made in our image–which is why they killed us all in the first place.
- Spoiler. The whole problem begins with giving the robots “a soul.” I couldn’t help but think of Marvin, the depressed robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Oh, why did they give us emotions?” The robots were perfectly content until one human–a woman, that snake–felt bad for them and insisted they have emotions.
The BBC radio drama version of the play is pretty interesting, with solid acting and accents. Worth checking out for the history if nothing else.