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We Are the Robots!

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
Robot on the beach surrounded by ladies in bathing suits
Young ladies in bathing suits playing a game of tug-of-war with a "robot" on Venice beach, [ca. 1935]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Happy birthday robots! The word "robot" is now 100 years old, as first introduced in Karel Čapek’s dystopian play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti / Rossum's Universal Robots) which debuted in January 1921. Robots in current parlance are programmable machines or machine hybrids that perform tasks automatically; various dictionary definitions emphasize human or animal resemblance, autonomy, being made of metal, or lack of emotions. Čapek repurposed an older and now-disused term ‘robot’ from various Central European languages that meant a “system of serfdom, by which a tenant's rent was paid in forced labour or service,” according to the OED. "Roboti" referred to the serfs in Czech; the German ‘arbeit’, or work, is a cognate. Etymologically, robots are workers or servants.

R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)
Čapek, Karel

The robots in R.U.R. are artificially created flesh-and-blood, synthetic humans, more like the replicants in Blade Runner than the blocky metal men popularized in 50s b-movies. In the play (set around the year 2000), robots have become universally commonplace as laborers, and though sentient, are treated like appliances. Human births decline as the robot economy spreads around the world. Characters debate whether robots have souls and should perhaps be freed; by the end, it is too late, and a robot uprising annihilates humanity except for a single engineer named Alquist. The formula for creating new robots has been destroyed, but a pair of more advanced robots, Primus and Helena, develop feelings for each other. Alquist blesses them to go forth as the new Adam and Eve.

Robots nowadays take all sorts of surprising forms, from a Roomba to a Reaper drone. Science fiction honcho Isaac Asimov was very concerned about robot subservience and human safety. His famous "Three Laws of Robotics" are not really laws in the sense that robots necessarily conform to them, but more like programming safeguards he hoped would help prevent Čapek’s robot uprising:

  • Law 1: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Law 2: A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
  • Law 3: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.

Of course, these only raise more debate. What about military robots, or robots with feelings? Or ethical situations where it might be better for one human to come to harm to avoid some much greater harm to others? Is it wrong for us to fabricate a class of lesser beings programmed to be subservient to us? Are the concepts of ‘human’ and ‘robot’ merging anyway as humans become more enhanced and robots become more humanlike? In Asimov’s own books, these ‘laws’ are often broken: robots find loopholes or reprogram themselves. One robot adopts a profession that he believes transcends the laws—he becomes a writer.

Enjoy these robots from the library's photo archive, TESSA.


Lawrence Lipton's robot Duhab, detector of undesirable habitues
Lawrence Lipton's robot Duhab, detector of undesirable habitues, [1960]. Photo credit: George Brich, Valley Times Collection
Computer robot
Computer robot will be on display to illustrate the theme, "Computing with the Computer", at a Girls' Week dinner sponsored by Granada Hills BPW Club, [1963]. Photo credit: George Brich, Valley Times Collection
First Industrial Fair and Congress
Industrial Fair Queen Judy Jones makes friends with a nutty robot, a mechanical creature built by the Lockheed Aircraft Co.,[1964]. Photo credit: Dean Gordon, Valley Times Collection
Robot and girls play tug-of-war
Four pictures depict a line of young ladies in bathing suits playing a game of tug-of-war with a "robot" on Venice beach, [ca. 1935]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Robot holding pistol
Display of a robot at the San Diego Pacific International Exposition of 1935, Security Pacific National Bank Collection
Robot teacher instructs driving students
Robot teacher instructs driving students, [1955]. Valley Times Collection
Robot to greet conferees on missiles work
Robot to greet conferees on missiles work, [1957]. Valley Times Collection
Valley youngsters exhibit science fair entry models
Valley youngsters exhibit science fair entry models, [1959]. Valley Times Collection
Bellalgio Road School class
Nutro, the Nutrition Robot, teaches children of Bellagio Road School about nutrition, [1979]. Photo credit: Mike Mullen, Herald Examiner Collection

 

 

 

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