The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, December 23, 2011

War with the Newts

Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) set the agenda for the robot in SF, not least by naming it. Its 2011 republication in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series (in one volume with Capek's 1936 novel War with the Newts, and informatively introduced by Adam Roberts) gives us a fresh opportunity to look at this taproot text. We all know the story: robots are created to serve humanity, and after some time they rise up and destroy their human masters. If we've read a little more about the play, we know that Čapek's robots aren't mechanical but quasi-organic: what in later SF would be called androids or replicants. Few of us have actually read it. More of us should.

I didn't know until I read the play a few weeks ago that it's funny. And I'd never reflected on the significance of its place and date of publication: Prague, 1920. When the risen robots issue a manifesto to all the robots of the world, propagated in leaflets by the shipload, the echo of the Russian revolution is loud and clear. Other aspects of the rebellion evoke a slave - or colonial - uprising. From their first clunky steps, robots in SF have carried a heavy freight of human anxieties.

A month ago I spent three days in Amsterdam, as a guest of the International Conference on Social Robotics 2011, where I gave the closing keynote. The opening keynote was by a much more consequent speaker: the academic, inventor and entrepreneur Tomotaka Takahashi, who charmed and amazed us all with his cute and accomplished humanoid ROPID and his energetic toy robot Evolta (of Panasonic battery ad fame), and gave us an intriguing rationale for creating small humanoid robots: small for safety, humanoid because we can talk to them without feeling self-conscious, thus making them an ideal interface for all the other gadgets we have around the house. But the best reason, he said, was 'creating new fun', as Steve Jobs did with the iPhone.

There was much fun to be had: social robotics is a new and thriving field, looking at the integration of robots into society through a cluster of lenses, from the technical through the sociological to the cultural. Papers presented ranged from empirical studies of human-robot interaction to such wonderfully speculative flights as the pressing question of whom (or what) to sue if a sexbot AI steals your partner's affections. There was a lively exhibit of work-in-progress posters, some accompanied by demonstrations of actual robots. The programmable Nao robot has become a test platform for much research, and has even been used in robot theatre and stand-up. (I suggested to Heather Knight, the impressario of these events, that a production of R.U.R. with Nao robots would be screamingly funny, but she didn't think it feasible.) Some intrepid engineers are even working on general-purpose humanoid household robots, and pit their creations against each other in the competition RoboCup@Home (inspired by the robot football competition, RoboCup) with sometimes hilarious results.

My impressions, from the exhibits and from the entries in the competition which I took part in judging, are that some of the most immediately applicable work is being done with unwell children and the frail elderly. Children with autism, in particular, seem to benefit measurably from interaction with friendly, cuddly robots. These robots are sophisticated, but remotely controlled in real time by concealed operators - what's known as the 'Wizard of Oz' approach, which is also widely used as a quick-and-dirty method of gauging human-robot interaction.

I find myself wondering whether we'd be working with humanoid robots at all, let alone mentally and verbally classifying them with mechanisms as diverse as autonomous vaccum-cleaners and industrial arms, if it weren't for SF, through Dick and Asimov and all the way back to Čapek. Just as well, perhaps, that intelligent marine creatures haven't crawled ashore - yet.

Labels: ,


R.U.R. is fine, but it's far from being Capek's best work. Newts is better, as is its companion volume Factory of the Absolute (a.k.a. The Absolute at Large), both of which are satirical masterpieces. Outside of science fiction and satire, his best is the Hordubal/Meteor/Ordinary Life trilogy. The short stories (in multiple genres) are also terrific.

A nice political point about R.U.R., though, is that it dramatises both what was at the time one of the chief anxieties of workers (being replaced by machinery) and what was one of the chief anxieties of capitalists (proletarian revolution).

In related news, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Capek was one of their prime targets (he had written a number of explicitly antifascist plays), but to the Nazis' frustration he had already died on Christmas day, 1938. So they settled for killing his brother.

I first saw R.U.R. on the American TV's excellent Playhouse 90. It made a tremendous impression on me. I later read about Capek's invention of "robot," derived from "Robota," a word found in various forms in some Slavic languages. That seems to mean a labourer or serf who engages in monotonous, often difficult, labour. The speculative history of Capek's "Robot" is detailed in Wikipedia's entry "robot." Roderick is right about Capek's other works, as I learned from Chapter 12 of Darko Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. Professor Suvin first gives his rigorous account of the nature of SF, and uses that to discuss the genre's history. Capek 's work is analysed in the chapters on Russian and related utopian/dystopian SF.

According to the OED "robot" was a system of serfdom characterised by the paying of rent by forced labour for the landlord. One quote has it "limited in 1800 by the Ragusa government to ninety days a year". This sense of the word was first recorded in English in 1839.


This comment has been removed by the author.

This comment has been removed by the author.

The OED might disagree with Wikipedia here, which calls that aspect of serfdom "robota." But if the suffixed "a" indicates our "the robot" (I think it does in Polish, which lacks a definite article), then the disagreement vanishes. "Robot" then becomes a common noun.

Robot is the English word for that system, the OED gives several possible derivations from other languages, robota being in there.

Thanks again, Pat. I don't have easy access to an OED. I guess "Robota" might then be one type of (pseudo) proper name for that system. Think of "The pub is the poor man's club." The first two words form what the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars called a "distributive singular term." Another example is "The lion is tawny." None of these three actually names a single object, as in "The Tower of London." Rather, they can often function as substitutes for, e.g. "Lions are tawny." Sellars used the philosopher Carnap's work on language here, to help update Ockham's nominalism..

I get to use all sorts of reference works, including the OED, through my local library online access. They don't make much of it, I just noticed the button one day.

I'm a retired academic associated with one of Europe's main universities. Although it has the Nordic lands' best research library, it is subject to the worldwide "Licensing System," set up by what was then Elsevier's. It limits total access(e.g.use at home and most downloading) to facilities to student and academic staff, which leaves me out.One cannot pay extra for full use. The system's goal, as I have heard its founder say in Dutch, is "profit, profit, and more profit." I consider this to be a disaster for the easy access to information that ought to hold in an open society, since access to a research paper must be paid for each time, by others. It's pricey. This is one effect of the system. Other bad results affect all libraries, chiefly, intentionally high costs of subscriptions.

What's it with the bicycles?

The bicycles? Just local colour.

That's a bike rack, where you can legally park while you shop or use the fine but ugly library of the University of Amsterdam. The photo was taken from the Koningsplein (the King's Square), and shows the beginning of the Leidsestraat, with the Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) a bit further on.

Post a Comment