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The Robots Are Us

Ken Hollings discusses Karel Capek's 1921 play R.U.R., a 'comedy of science and truth' about the end of mankind and its overthrow by robots in the far-flung 1950s.

In January 1921, in a Europe still reeling from war and revolution, the Czech writer Karel Capek created a worldwide hit with his 'comedy of science and truth' R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), flesh not metal, are sold around the world first to create a world free from arduous labour and then to fight our wars. Free from consciousness or feelings. What could possibly go wrong? Humanity stops breeding and a new class of feeling robots strike out for a brave new world once humankind is all but exterminated. This now seems awfully familiar but in 1921 not so much.

Ken Hollings examines the creation and legacy of a play that both gifted the world the word Robot and began an enduring cliché that intelligent machines will rise up and destroy us. Written before pulp science fiction and at the height of Taylorism and the Ford assembly line, it found an international audience anxious about the fate of workers and work, revolution and mass production. But Capek's fleshy creations, more replicant that TOBOR, would soon be overlayed with the image of the clanking metal machine that would surely seek world domination on the covers of pulp science fiction and movies. In fiction the SKYNET is always falling, our robot overlords must be welcomed and the singularity is just around the corner. The science of Robotics would only begin in earnest decades after R.U.R. and A.I. and its ethical conundrums of existence, rights and reasoning belong to our 21st century yet Capek's notion of the revolt of the machines still dances through our debates and imagination. Ken Hollings talks to historians, roboticists, to grasp the power of R.U.R. and all that has followed.

Producer: Mark Burman

Available now

44 minutes

Broadcast

  • Sun 10 Jan 2021 18:45

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