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What the Czech Play That Coined the Term 'Robot' Tells Us About Today's Robonomics

Playwright Karel Capek was going to call the artificial workers in his play "Labori," but his brother suggested “robots,” instead. It’s not surprising then, that the robots in 'Rossum's Universal Robots' feel like a pretty thinly-veiled metaphor.
Ben Richmond
Κείμενο Ben Richmond

We’ve been afraid of the robot uprising as long as we’ve had the word “robot,” which we got from the Czechs in the 1920s. A robotnik is a slave; robota, forced labor. But it was by way of a play, Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.), that the anglicized “robot” came to us as meaning a man-like machine.

I recently saw the play put on by the Resonance Ensemble at the Beckett Theatre in New York City. Mounting R.U.R. now seems particularly timely, as the first real robot revolution is upon us.

As always, we live in fear of the robot. Today it is not so much that the Siris of the world will grow tired of our trifling requests for nearby restaurants and weather reports, but more so that technology will continue its creep up the skill ladder, swallowing the remaining blue-collar jobs as an appetizer for white-collar work. Our fear now revolves around the fact that technology is encroaching on more and more human labor, but our hyper-enlightened system for distributing its benefits is nowhere to be found.

Once the realm of science fiction, the fear is now manifest across our stateliest publications (and available in big pools of links here and here). In December 2012, Paul Krugman speculated on long-term problems facing the American economy, and one of them was a rise of robotics contributing to an ongoing shift of income from workers to owners of capital.

Publications such as The Atlantic and Wired have both published stories on how the human workforce is nearing obsoletism. Not just those of us doing repetitious or “mechanical” tasks will be replaced. But as Wired’s Kevin Kelly warns: “It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic.”

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