From R2D2 to the Terminator, robots are a common theme in modern fiction, but not many people realize that the robot was born in Prague exactly 85 years ago. To celebrate its birthday a project last week at the University of Cambridge in England examined the life of robots and their Czech creator.
Karel Capek was one of the great writers of inter-war Czechoslovakia. His play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) coined the term to describe human-like androids that perform mundane, repetitive labor. In 1921 the play opened right here in Prague and introduced robots to the world. Now Cambridge University's Robot Project explores their life, their history and what they say about us.
Social Anthropologist Kathleen Richardson, who organized the project, says the themes of Capek's seminal play can be used to explore larger issues.
"You know, going back to the original play and finding out about the original robots, I was kind of inspired to put on the play. And then I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to put on the play, I should also have an exhibition - get speakers, have films and use all of these different mediums to explore the question of what makes us human.'"
And what sort of stuff do you have on display at your exhibition?
"The exhibition begins by looking at the first robots, which not a lot of people know were never mechanical in a literal sense, only in a metaphorical sense. What happened was that in the '20s other artists began to give the robot its metallic and its mechanical form. "
"The idea of a mechanical robot became so popular that Capek issued a public reaction against it. He said it was a horror that the themes of his play had been re-represented in the kinds of ways that they were. So he must have felt like he'd created a kind of Frankenstein's monster back in the '30s."
So far, what has been the response to this display?
"We've had a lot of interest, actually, with the whole project. We've come to think of robots in a kind of sub-cultural way or, you know, as characters in Star Wars. So really, what I wanted to do with the whole project was to try and reclaim the robot - not only as technological object and an entertainment one, but as the political object that Capek intended."
How is the robot a political object?
"Well, it was developed at the height of the labor movement back in the '20s, when clearly themes of work and people's place within the working system were very much prominent. And actually Capek and his brother Josef - Josef is the one who gave him the idea of the robot - they wrote a play in 1908 called 'The System.' It was the source of their inspiration for the robot."
"In it there's a character who says 'I want to turn the worker into a machine. I want to get rid of his camaraderie and his feelings of compassion because I don't need those things in my factory. So it was very much inspired by the issues of work and how we treat each other in a modern system of work."