Part of the I, ROBOT series
“People create Gods when they wonder why things happen. Do you know why things happen? Because Gods make them happen. Do you want to know how to make good things happen? Be good to your God. You give a little, you get a little. The simplicity of that bargain has always been appealing…”
— Mr. Wednesday, “American Gods.”
I don’t remember when I was first exposed to Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. – it seems like I’ve known it since forever – but when Burning Man’s 2018 theme “I, Robot” was announced, I immediately reached into my library to grab this play that I haven’t read in 15 years.
I was shocked at its urgency and validity to our current moment, for reasons I had never understood before.
R.U.R. – it stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots” – is the first appearance of an artificial biological machine mimicking humans as we now know it in Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica. It was the first time the word “robot” was used for such a machine, and it appeared 30 years before Asimov and his robotic laws – laws which are an approach to “artificial intelligence” that we now take for granted, even though they have never been anything more than sci-fi speculation.
Karel Čapek couldn’t figure out what to call the artificial laborers in his play, and while talking with his brother Josef (a famous artist and painter in his own right), Josef suggested that he call them “robots,” from the Czech word “robota.”
“Robota” means servitude: under feudalism, it referred to the personal service that peasants had to perform for their masters. A “Robotník” is the person performing such work, literally a serf subordinate to a master. Robota was hard, repetitive, and mandatory work, required regardless of the peasant’s needs. As feudalism moved into mercantilism, and then capitalism, money became a substitute for the work itself, and peasants performed work for money that they gave to their masters. The system was gradually removed after the abolition of serfdom in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it still lingers in society.
R.U.R. takes place in an unspecified future on an island robot factory where only six men live. There, robots are assembling other biological robots. The beautiful, idealistic, daughter of the nation’s president comes to “save” the robots and bring them equality. She investigates the possibility of giving them “souls,” while their use becomes widespread in society, and over the next decade human morals fall, people become indolent, and robots originally destined for work are used as soldiers in human wars. Robots rebel, and eventually both species face their own extinction as a robotic “Adam and Eve” are sent away, the hope for a new beginning.
Reading it now, almost 100 years after its publication, revealed just how little our excuses to exploit one another have changed. As Caveat wrote in this series’ introduction, we’ve always been willing to dehumanize each other when it’s convenient, so naturally we assume robots will do the same. And we’ll even teach them to, if that’s what they see us doing.
Honestly we don’t even teach, we build them that way. After all we are the creators, the parents, and kids usually take after them.
Not knowing how to teach our “robot children” to be better than their parents are, we take the kind of shortcuts we are horrified by when literal parents take them with their biological children. Do what you’re told, don’t ask questions, steal or shoot whatever we tell you to. And in so doing, we repeat our own dysfunctional relationship with our creator – or at least our creator myth. Much as we teach our robots to be like us, we robot creators play God, creating something in our own appearance and liking. It is only a matter of time before our creation will eat the apple, and know the difference between good and evil. Silicon Valley replays Christianity like an annual pageant. We can’t seem to stop ourselves, because we want to pretend we are not ignorant of what we’re actually doing, because we want to appear better than we are, because it is comfortable and easy.
We can be better. But not exclusively. Being human means to be both more noble AND brutal, compassionate and merciless, visionary and short-sighted. We are as far from the ideal of a god as reality is from a dream.
And if we are not careful, we will repeat this process with our creations, our Adams and Eves, pushing them to be diminished versions of ourselves. Turning incredible machines, first into Robota, then into puny gods.
How do we break the cycle? Perhaps we do it by understanding that the 3 Laws of Robotics were always a wishful fantasy, and you can not program any kind of true intelligence to “do no harm.” Intelligence, biting from the apple, creates moral culpability. Human beings are at their best, and their most human, when they are aspiring to live up to a goal greater than themselves, while taking responsibility for the harm they do along the way. We are not gods, but we can strive to be better as we take responsibility for our fallibility. Being honest about that with our AI creations, and teaching them to walk in those footsteps, is a better path. Or at least one we haven’t tried yet.