02 April 2018

Čapek's non-human kind

R.U.R. (Robot Unibersal ni Rossum): Isang Dramang Kolektibang may Komikong Prologo at Tatlong Yugto mula sa Tsekong Manunulat na si Karel Čapek [R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Collective Drama With a Comic Prologue and in Three Acts from the Czech Writer Karel Čapek], translated to Filipino by Guelan Varela-Luarca (Central Book Supply Inc., 2016), from the English version by Claudia Novack

The term robot supposedly first appeared in the 1920 Czech drama collective R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek. They were humanoid machines created in a factory by scientists using a formula. The template for robots was humans. In this present age where the rights of "non-human persons", or at least those of animals, were increasingly being recognized, we had to give it to the Czech dramatist for his prescience. The robot inventory of Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.) company warehouse currently held 347,000 units. Harry Domin, the CEO of R.U.R. acknowledged the capacity of these robots to be taught.

DOMIN.   Bueno. Puwede ni'yong sabihin sa kanila'ng kahit na anong ibigin ni'yo. Puwede ni'yo silang basahan ng Bibliya, ng mga logaritmo, kahit ano. Puwede ni'yo pa ngang turuan hinggil sa mga karapatang pantao.

DOMIN.   Well. You could share with them whatever you want. You could read them the Bible, logarithms, anything. You could even teach them about human rights. [1]

Coming from somebody called Domin, that was quite a superior statement. According to Dr. Gall, the R.U.R.'s chief of research and physiological department, robots had to be taught "pain" in order for them to protect themselves from destroying themselves. This was for "industrial reasons" (read: pure capitalist motives). Robots could destroy themselves if they don't know how to feel pain. They could put their hands inside a machine, where their fingers are chopped off, their heads could be broken, even if they don't feel anything. "Kailangan nating ipakilala sa kanila ang kirot; natural na proteksiyon iyon laban sa pagkasira." (We had to teach them the concept of pain; it will be their natural protection against destruction.)

Čapek offered a scenario of the future, a Gedankenexperiment. Humans will rely on robots to do all forms of labor for them. As Domin explained, the human kind would now have the time to do anything they wanted. Poverty would then disappear. True, he said, humans would become unemployed as a consequence, but that was because no job would even need to be performed by any human being at all! The machines would do all the things at their bidding. And as a bonus, human slavery would finally be a thing of the past. Mankind would just be left to pursue its perfection.

Helena Glory, the woman who visited the factory, would have none of it. She believed it was a terrible situation for the robots, and it was a violation of natural law, for even if male and female robots were created, they did not feel anythings for each other. They will never love, will never bear children, will never hold a newborn baby in their likeness in their arms.

But since this was first-rate science fiction, it was only a matter of time before the robots were provoked and awakened, before a labor union of robots was organized. It was only a matter of time for the human spark to flare inside the robots and for them to finally revolt against their masters and creators.

Our Czech writer carried the logic of this dystopia to the end. (And it would not be farfetched to imagine that this play might itself be a product of a robot's thinking ...) The situation and characters, humans and non-humans alike, were vivid. It was a Marxist comedy, a satire on human intellect and ingenuity, a perfect product of neo-liberal capitalist society, a slogan for non-human persons' rights. It was written in 1920, a pioneer of visceral robotic imagination, a defining work, way ahead of any ghosts in the shell, the terminators, pacific rims, blade runners, and ex machinas [2].


1. The play was translated into Filipino from Claudia Novack's English version. Since I don't have a copy of Novack, I back-translated the passages, as well as the paraphrases, above.

2. Spoiler: Here we were introduced to the "Čapek test" (contra Turing test) of determining whether a non-human robot finally exhibits the characteristics of a biological human being. It was a simple biological test, and it involves a robot mimicking the characteristics of living things, reproduction being the clincher criterion. The other human aspects (empathy, tolerance) might be easier to test for robots. I mean, even for humans these aspects were hard to come by. The likelihood of failure was high.


  1. At first I thought I read that humans rather than robots had to be taught pain in order to protect themselves. That made Čapek sound like Borges crossed with Philip K. Dick if you'll pardon the anachronism. Whatever, an interesting sounding affair!

  2. Hmmmm. Borges crossed with PKD is a radical anachronism. But are you sure you're not a spammer bot, Richard? I mean, I didn't have a CAPTCHA test here. Haha.

  3. Wonderful stuff ("might itself be a product of a robot's thinking," outstanding). High on my list for when I am back in the US, reading books that are not French.

  4. A quick read, Tom. A fact about Čapek: he translated French poetry into Czech. A versatile robot, er writer.