In 1920, Czech writer Karel Čapek penned a play titled R.U.R., a cautionary tale about technology's potential to dehumanize.
R.U.R. stands for "Rossum’s Universal Robots" and it was this play that introduced the word "robot" to the world (apparently coined
by Karel's brother Josef). At the MIT Press Reader
, John Jordan, author of the book Robots
, digs into the continued influence of R.U.R.:
Like many of his peers, (Čapek) was appalled by the carnage wrought by the mechanical and chemical weapons that marked World War I as a departure from previous combat. He was also deeply skeptical of the utopian notions of science and technology. “The product of the human brain has escaped the control of human hands,” Čapek told the London Saturday Review following the play’s premiere. “This is the comedy of science.”
In that same interview, Čapek reflected on the origin of one of the play’s characters:
The old inventor, Mr. Rossum (whose name translated into English signifies “Mr. Intellectual” or “Mr. Brain”), is a typical representative of the scientific materialism of the last [nineteenth] century. His desire to create an artificial man — in the chemical and biological, not mechanical sense — is inspired by a foolish and obstinate wish to prove God to be unnecessary and absurd. Young Rossum is the modern scientist, untroubled by metaphysical ideas; scientific experiment is to him the road to industrial production. He is not concerned to prove, but to manufacture.
Thus, “R.U.R.,” which gave birth to 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.
"The Czech Play That Gave Us the Word ‘Robot’" (MIT Press Reader)
"Robots (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series)" by John M. Jordan (Amazon)
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