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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 '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.
January 23, 2013, 8:20pm
This is not a photo from the rendition of Rossom's Universal Robots that I saw (via)

We’ve been afraid of the robot uprising as long as we’ve had the word “robot,” a word that made its way into English from Czech 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 now 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 on-going 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.”

Most in the West have the reassurance that the next jobs being phased out by robots have already been outsourced to other countries, where low-tech, old-fashioned human labor was cheaper.

Even here, robots are creeping in to take these least pleasant of jobs. Foxconn, makers of the iPhone and quite a bit human suffering, are bringing in more than a million robots to supplement and replace people. Terry Gou, Foxconn’s chairman, described the rationale behind the new robot hires in typical Foxconn fashion. “As human beings are also animals,” Gou stated, “to manage one million animals gives me a headache.” Which is such a terrible thing to say, that you really hope the robots can and will replace everyone at Foxconn, so no one has to work for this man ever again.


Playwright Karel Capek was going to call the artificial workers Labori, but the name struck him as “too bookish.” His brother, the painter Josef Capek, suggested “robots,” instead. It’s not too surprising then, that the robots in R.U.R. feel like a pretty thinly-veiled metaphor.

Rather than working alongside people, robots replace them, starting in unpleasant, low-level jobs like coal-mining, and working their way up to more complicated tasks--sweeping the floor, fighting wars, and making more robots in the robot factory where the play takes place, the birthplace of all robots.

In the adaptation I saw, the robots get better and better software, and eventually deduce that they are the next stage of evolution, and the humans must make way for robo sapien. All the soldier robots return to the factory of their birth, to take control of their own fate and complete the extermination of the human race.

No one in our contemporary world seems to be mistaking the workers of the world with cogs, although troublingly that seems to be so because the cogs are much easier to employ, and capable of so much more. Not only are human beings being replaced at things humans used to be able to do--robots are doing things that human beings never could do, like mine asteroids or explore deep space, or build a ton of smartphones without ever getting carpal tunnel.

Still, the robots feel very much like tools, not like competition. The issue isn’t that our machines are out to kill us. It’s that they’re out to offer us the highest quality for the lowest prices.

Fast-food workers of the work, unite be warned! (via Momentum Machines)

It’s not R.U.R. or the Terminator or the Matrix that’s happening here. It’s more reminiscent of John Henry and his hammer. John Henry might beat that steam-powered, steel-driving machine on that first round (the folk songs have varied accounts on this), but it costs John Henry his life. And ultimately, John Henry was an otherwise disenfranchised stiff, who some say was born a slave in Tennessee; he was definitely a minority, whose job is so dead end that it ends in his death. And John Henry was the best at what he did. What chance did the serviceable-but-unremarkable steel drivers have?

Maybe it’s reminiscent of the last industrial revolution, where eventually we found stuff for everyone to do, but both economists and business leaders point to the tech boom as evidence that even if a rising tide lifts all boats, some tides don’t lift everyone equally. As Google’s Eric Schmidt noted late last year: “Employment is going to be a global problem, not a U.S. one.”


R.U.R. does offer a few insights into what life will be like with robots that (er, who?) are as capable as people. Just as people like the Reformed Broker are projecting today, the manufacturers who own the intellectual property of the robots are making bank. Even in the midst of the robot rebellion, their accountant (who somewhat inexplicably is a person) is tallying up the astronomical sums that Rossum’s Universal Robot company has made.

Sadly, this is most of what we hear about R.U.R.’s world beyond the robot factory—a dropping birth rate, and constant war. The people inside the robot factory work in the research and development and marketing of robots, so R.U.R. doesn’t offer a lot of clues as to how the middle class is supposed to live in the coming age of post-Fordism, where your factory workers don’t need to be able to afford your product because they are your product.

It’s a sort of facile turn of phrase for the specter that now hangs over our entire economy. But there may be hope that economists will get moving on figuring this out, lest they be replaced by something that can.

Last week Ayasdi, a data mining company founded in Palo Alto, California, revealed software that mined “big data” and presented researchers with the connections. "The biggest challenge in big data today is asking the right questions of data. The power of Ayasdi is its unique ability to automatically discover insights without asking questions", said Ayasdi CEO Gurjeet Singh. An Ayasdi investor said big data contains "answers that will help solve some of the most pressing global, social and economic issues.”

Machine giveth, machine taketh away.