Imagine someone stops you on the sidewalk and asks you, “Where did robots come from?” You first thought might be, “Why is this crazy person concerned about the origin of robots?”, but then you might think about scientists in laboratories or engineers in universities. You probably wouldn’t be thinking about a Czech play written in the 1920’s.
The robot play
Karel Čapek wrote a play entitled Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots) or R.U.R. The play premiered on January 25, 1921. Čapek introduced the world to the word “robot” with his play and laid the foundation for future science fiction writers, scientists, and engineers alike.
In Čapek’s play, the roboti (which means robots) are artificially intelligent people that are cranked out in a factory. The fact that they are made of synthesized organic materials and they can think for themselves means that they can be mistaken for human beings (think Blade Runner).
Initially, humans and roboti coexist successfully with the social agreement that humans make roboti and roboti serve the humans. However, this relationship does not last.
As is so often the case in science fiction, the robots are bad news for humankind. Bad might be an understatement. The roboti in R.U.R. ultimately lead to the extinction of the human race by means of a violent robot rebellion.
It’s been more than a century since the origin of robots. Today we create robots to perform tasks, but they’re nothing like the roboti. Manufacturers make use of robotic arms in factories to increase production and efficiency, but there’s no mistaking them for human beings.
While actual robots have changed and advanced over the course of a century, the idea of what a robot can be hasn’t really changed all that much. The ultimate vision of a robot is something almost human and capable of thought. It’s this vision, first publicly voiced back in 1921, that has advanced robotic technology to give us the robots we actually have today.
It’s hard to know whether or not real-world robots will ever be like fictional robots, but having that goal leads to remarkable advancements that can be applied in the real world.