The next story on my list is the play R.U.R by Czech writer Karl Capek. That review will come shortly, but I wanted to write a pre-post as it were about robots in general and why I'm so fascinated by them. If you don't know, R.U.R, which was published in 1920, introduced the word "robot" to the world. The term is from the Czech "robota," which apparently means "forced labour." (On an interesting side note, we actually have this word in Hungarian, too.)
Call me an optimist (because that’s what I am), but machines in general just go to show how awesome humans are at solving problems and making things easier for ourselves. Just look at some of the many wonderful inventions humans have come up with so far:
- The Printing Press: A huge thanks to Herr Gutenberg, the father of mass communication and the modern age, for that one.
- The Internal Combustion Engine: This beauty ushered in the Industrial Age and allowed us to create modern forms of transportation.
- The Telephone: Duh.
- The Computer: Obviously.
I’m continually astounded by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of my fellow man in advancing our species. And robots of the humanoid kind seem a natural extension of that sentiment. But my fascination with them goes beyond an admiration for technology.
What Does It Mean to Be Human?
The idea of robots really brings the human condition into perspective for me. First of all, what does it mean to be human? Is it our capacity for reasoning? Or is there something else? The idea is also extremely humbling because it illuminates the fact that though we are smart, we still don’t understand ourselves completely. How exactly does the brain work? What are emotions? We may be able to answer these questions somewhat adequately with words, but those words don’t help us in recreating emotions, or a brain, in a machine. And is that the true test of our understanding of ourselves? The ability to recreate a human from mechanical parts?
Then we hit the really fun, rabbit-holey stuff. (I know you’re thinking “Andrea, this was already insanely fascinating. How could it get any better?” Let me explain.) Suppose we did manage to create robots that looked and acted exactly like us, so much so that it became impossible to tell a human from a robot. What is the logical consequence of such an achievement? Would those robots have rights and be seen as persons under the law (á la Bicentennial Man, which I just realized should totally be on my list, and “The Measure of a Man” episode of Star Trek: TNG)? Would humans have relationships with them (you know the kind I mean)? In short, what would that world look like?
Now you might be reading this thinking “This is all grand, but also a complete waste of brain energy. We have very real problems in the world today that need to be addressed ASAP.”
And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. We do have problems that need to be addressed ASAP. How do such thought experiments help, if at all?
I think the answer lies in my point above: the idea of robots delineates the human condition and helps us see ourselves from a different perspective. Many sci-fi stories, both novels and TV and movies, use the robot concept as a commentary on said real-world problems, or to explore aspects of the human condition that are highlighted when presented in a robot. Basically, having to create a replica of ourselves forces us to ask what we are composed of (physically and mentally) in the first place!
And that kind of knowledge is invaluable for solving many, if not all, of our problems.
Also, robots are just really, really, really cool.
Stay tuned for my review of R.U.R.