Celebrating 100 years of the ‘robot’ with R.U.R.

Celebrating 100 years of the ‘robot’ with R.U.R.

Using a 100-year-old play as a catalyst for conversation about the cultural contexts and artefacts that shape AI systems today.

2020 marks 100 years since the Czech writer Karel Čapek penned R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). As well as inventing the word “robot” with his visionary play, Čapek also anticipated contemporary debate on the social, moral and economic trade-offs involved in developing and implementing artificially intelligent technologies. 3Ai had planned to present a live version of Čapek’s play, to celebrate its 100-year anniversary and engage with its themes today. However, this was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, we have pivoted this work to produce educational resources for cross-disciplinary conversations about robotics, automation, and what it means to design AI systems responsibly today. These resources have been designed for adaptation to various contexts, including high school and undergraduate classrooms, and professional training and team development.

What sparked this project?

Anyone who encounters R.U.R. is immediately struck by its prescience and relevance to contemporary debates on artificial intelligence and automation. The play tells the story of a corporation making artificial people, called ‘robots’, who eventually rebel and overthrow their human masters. While robots today are often described in terms of steel and silicon, the original robots of R.U.R. were different: they were made of synthetic flesh and blood, and in the play, often confused with real people. In attempts to reduce robot accidents, the robots are programmed to experience suffering and taught to reason, and over the course of the play they become harder to control.

Traces of the robots of R.U.R. can be glimpsed in the replicants of Blade Runner, the androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the theme park occupants of Westworld. Moreover, the play has been referenced throughout the 20th century by engineers and roboticists wrestling with the broader social implications of their technology, such Norbert Weiner, one of the founders of Cybernetics. It was clear to us that the play still had more work to do.

What did we do?

In preparing to present a reading of R.U.R. 3Ai hosted script workshops with staff and external guests, sharing character roles and reflecting on relationships between the themes of the play and twenty first century concerns spanning AI, globalisation, capitalism, gender and climate change.

 

“How could you ever have thought the managing director was in charge of production? Production is governed by supply and demand. Everywhere in the world they wanted to have their robots, and all we did was respond to the flood of orders.”  (Busman, the financial controller in R.U.R)

 

Around the script workshop tables, participants included systems engineers, roboticists, theatre makers, actors, writers, legal scholars, marketing and communications professionals and photographers. Following the cancellation of public event due to COVID-19, we reflected on this experience, and saw an opportunity to develop a suite of resources that would help others use R.U.R. in the same way.

What was the Aha! moment?

Exploring robots and artificial intelligence through the prism of R.U.R.  is in keeping with one of the core ideas of 3Ai: that all technology has a history and a place, a context and a set of ideas embedded in it. To design contemporary technologies safely and sustainably, we need to be able to interrogate the cultural contexts that shape our own and the public’s perception of those technologies. As an historical artefact, R.U.R. helps us to trace the trajectory of ideas that have led to current attitudes to robots. As a work of imagination, it encourages us to explore those attitudes with empathy. And, as an object of conversation, it offers a way for people with different disciplinary backgrounds, perspectives and skills, to share a common experience and language.

 

3Ai is currently testing its resources in educational and workshop settings. In doing so, we hope to produce a reusable set of resources, and are conducting research about the process of developing cross-disciplinary educational resources.

 

With thanks to 3Ai First Cohort and PhD Candidate Charlotte Bradley for capturing this snapshot.  

 

This project is still underway and we will endeavour to update this page regularly with new developments.

 

Last updated 19 June 2020

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