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Food for Thought

RUR or RU Ain’t A Person?

Tim Madigan leads the rise of the robots.

“Robots throughout the world, we command you to kill all mankind. Spare no men. Spare no women. Save factories, railways, machinery, mines, and raw materials. Destroy the rest. Then return to work. Work must not be stopped.” Karel Čapek, R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots

Whenever I teach Introduction to Philosophy, I begin not with Plato or Descartes or Nietzsche, but rather with the work of a now little-known philosopher and playwright, Karel Čapek (1890-1938). Specifically, I have the class read his 1920 play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots. I’ve found it’s an excellent way to introduce many of the themes I will be discussing throughout the course: the nature of the ‘soul’; the uses and abuses of reason; the roles of men and women; the importance of work in one’s self-development; the difficulty of understanding the place of humanity in nature; and the law of unintended consequences – most particularly, the complicated relationships humans have with their technological creations.

Čapek was cursed to live in fascinating times. He spent his entire life in the same geographical area, but during those years it went from being a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the independent country called Czechoslovakia, to a captive vassal of greater Nazi Germany. A patriot, a democrat and a personal friend of Czechoslovakian president T. G. Masaryk, Čapek had a doctorate in Philosophy from Charles University. He made his career as a journalist, playwright and novelist. Čapek used his pen to advocate emancipation of his country after the First World War, and later to defend it from threatened German invasion. Always in ill health, Čapek died from tuberculosis shortly after the 1938 invasion; but it seems that he had by then lost the will to live as he watched Czechoslovakia betrayed by the Allied Powers. He would surely have been imprisoned by the Nazis, like his brother Josef, who died in 1943 in the Belsen Concentration Camp after years of abuse.

Čapek wrote many works with fascinating philosophical themes: The Insect Play, in which bugs symbolically portray various human natures; The War With The Newts, in which gentle creatures are exploited by rapacious capitalists; The Makropulos Case, which looks at the downside of immortality; and Krakatit, a novel about the discovery of an explosive that could destroy the entire world – eerily anticipating the Atomic Age. But the best known – and most influential – of Čapek’s works was R.U.R., if for no other reason than it added the word ‘robot’ to our language. Actually suggested to Karel by Josef, it’s Czech for ‘servant’ or ‘slave’.

In the play R.U.R., humans create artificial creatures which perform all their menial tasks for them. ‘Rossum’ (a Czech word for ‘reason’) is the name of the Frankenstein-like inventor of the process for creating the robots. It seems that they’re not mechanical beings, but rather made from some sort of synthetic process, and it is significant that they are all given human forms, even though this is not necessary, and that the robots chosen to do domestic tasks are made to look like human females, while those chosen to do more mechanical labors are made to look like human males.

One of the central themes of R.U.R. is straight out of Aristotle’s defense of slavery: there will always be the need for slaves until brooms can move by themselves. In the R.U.R. case, the brooms do move themselves, as it were; but rather than becoming happier, humans become lazy and even more unsatisfied. Without work to motivate them they languish and even stop reproducing. Meanwhile, the robots become sentient and realize their superiority. They no longer wish to serve.

Based partly on the ancient Jewish legend of the Golem, R.U.R. has continued to inspire many works, most notably Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories. Movies such as Metropolis, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix and Wall-E have further explored the themes first raised by R.U.R., but it remains a powerful work in-and-of-itself.

What makes one a ‘person’? Is it intelligence? The ability to breed? Love? Possession of a soul? A combination of all of these? Perhaps. But, as Čapek makes clear, it’s also the need to perform meaningful work. Plagued by ill health and adversity throughout his short life, Čapek produced work that continues to inspire us – most especially R.U.R., a major contribution to the philosophical canon.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2009

Tim Madigan is noted for counting his robots before they hatch. He’d like to say “Domo arigato, Mr Roboto.”

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