Monday, October 3, 2016


With the slow, but increasing, realization that we, the human
race, are on the verge of replacing ourselves with machines,
it is perhaps of special interest to go back to the earliest
moments when this profound insight first appeared in our

Perhaps the most notable of these took place just after World
War I when a young Czech playwright/novelist named Karel
Capek wrote a play titled mysteriously “R.U.R.” that
premiered in a Prague theater, and quickly became a
worldwide sensation.

A bit of history: Czechoslovakia had long been part of the
Austro-Hungarian empire in Europe, but had its own historic
culture and language. After World War I, it finally received its
own independence as a combination of Bohemia and
Slovakia, two ancient European small states which had
emerged from the Dark Ages. The George Washington of
Czechoslovakia was Tomas Masaryk, a brilliant democratic
and humanist figure who was the small nation’s first president.
Incredibly rich in folklore and culture, but small in population
(less than 10 million), the Republic of Czechoslovakia
continued as a center of art and innovation on the newly
liberated European landscape. Composers such as Antonin
Dvorak, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek; writers such as
Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka remain giants today in
world culture. The word “bohemian” has become a word in
English because it captured so aptly the subculture of Western
artistic life of the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, Czechoslovakia and its writer Karel Capek also
added a new word to English (and virtually all other world
languages) which applies importantly to the 21st century.
The play title “R.U.R.” stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots.
In Czech, “rossum” means “reason,” and “robot” means
“drudgery.” The word robot has its origins in the Czech word
for “slave.” Capek’s play is the very first appearance anywhere
of the word robot (the playwright gave credit to the actual
invention of the word to his writer brother Josef.)

Today, “robotics” has become a central term in the evolution
of human activity. The word robot now stands for virtually all
machines created to do the work of humans. In the 1920’s,
robots were concepts of the future. Today, they are being devised
and put to work everywhere in virtually all human activities as
they replace human workers.

Since the early 1920’s, science fiction writers and films have
portrayed increasingly sympathetic or threatening versions of
robots. The apotheosis of the former were lovable characters in
Star Wars. More ominous robots, however, have appeared in
books and films as a force that brutally takes over the human
race and eliminates or enslaves it.

An even newer and related technology is artificial intelligence or
AI. This has presented itself less physically as robotic machines
and more as hyper-thinking entities. Curiously, Capek’s robots
in 1920 were more a premonition of AI than of robotics. In his
play, the robots are actually artificially created thinking beings,
more like “cyborgs” or “androids.” Capek presciently also
foresees the robotic revolution producing more goods at much
lower prices, as well as its disrupting human society.

Karel Capek was one of the world’s great futurists. A thinker
and philosopher, as well as a playwright and novelist, he was
during his short life on the cutting edge of what was then
anticipated as the future of humanity. His play “R.U.R.” is rarely
performed today, and science fiction writers such as Isaac
Asimov have criticized it as a bad play because it ends on an
optimistic note (the last surviving human being in the play turns
over the world to two robots, calling them “Adam” and “Eve”).

But we need to remember that tragic time. Czechoslovakia, it
turned out, would only exist for 20 years. Its allies, Britain and
France, turned it over to Hitler without a fight at Munich in a
notorious betrayal. Capek himself, only 48, died from pneumonia
on Christmas Day, 1938 --- only weeks after his beloved republic
was sold out by Neville Chamberlain and his cohorts. Many
believe he actually died from his broken heart sensing the
holocaust that was to come. (His brother Josef, the man who
actually invented the word “robot,” perished in a concentration
camp shortly afterwards.)

After World War II, Czechoslovakia traded the beast of Hitlerian
fascism for the beast of Soviet communism. Only in 1990, as the
Soviet Union was crumbling, was an independent, democratic
Czechoslovakia revived. It soon was divided into two separate
nations, The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prague today is an
exciting cultural center of the new Europe.

In that extraordinary time and in that extraordinary place,
Karel Capek had a remarkable vision of the future, and he chose
to see it with hope and promise. Only about a decade after
putting robots into the human vocabulary, he was faced with one
of the most unspeakable depravities human beings ever created,
a depravity made solely by human evil with no assistance from

Today, with robots and AI about to replace a major part of all
human work, and change forever how we live, the future is
also threatened by new and malign human frailties. Who can
fault the futurist Karel Capek for his timeless statement of hope
and survival?

Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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