We, Robot

One hundred years after Karel Capek wrote about humanoid machines, it turns out, dystopia is a software issue

In January 1921, a machine uprising that displaces humanity as we know it was, at best, an allegory. Czech playwright Karel Capek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots introduced the term “robot” — derived from roboti, the Czech word for serf — and the audience lapped it up. Since then, robots have seen many avatars, moving from science fiction to reality, from a frightening symbolism about the horrors of automatisation to the promise of a tech-enabled future. Now, though, when the dystopia is upon us, it turns out that Capek’s robots aren’t what’s bringing civilisation down.

Capek’s robots — mechanised slaves that displace their masters — found echoes throughout the golden age of science fiction. Humanoid machines were to become Frankenstein’s monster, and our downfall would come, as in a Greek tragedy, from a combination of arrogance and ignorance. But things changed. In the aftermath of World War II and the rise of American optimism, technology became the road to Utopia, and robots too evolved — there were robot dogs out of Japan, C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars, alongside The Terminator.

Today, as AI-fuelled algorithms and automatisation threaten democracy and labour rights, there might be some lessons in the 1921 play that first articulated the fear of the machine. Capek was not anti-machine, or even against the robots he created. As long as they were tools they were welcome. The problem is greed, over-production and the willingness to give up thought and human interaction for the convenience of being a digital cyborg. It is not the robots, the hardware, that are the main problem. It is now the willingness to give up objectivity for “likes”, rationality for “shares” and outsourcing our minds to servers full of ones and zeros. Humanity, it turns out, has a bug in its software.

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