R.U.R. and The Insect Play by Josef Čapek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It seems appropriate to read R.U.R. on the centenary of its first publication in English, as the literary work which first introduced the word robot to the English language. R.U.R. stands for Rossum's Universal Robots, a firm that produced artificial workers to take care of the drudgery that human workers didn't like doing.
The firm is based on a remote island, from which it exports its products to many parts of the world, and business is booming when governments discover that robots make efficient soldiers too, with the advantage that they have no relatives to mourn their loss.
The island-factory is visited by Helena Glory, who is concerned about whether the robots may be sentient beings, and therefore might possibly have, or perhaps ought to have, legal rights similar to human rights, and eventually there is a robot revolt.
As a result of the play the word "robot" became part of the English language, at first mainly in science fiction, where is spawned a plethora of stories about artificial workers. I'm not sure when it first began to be used for real-life replacements for human workers, but I suspect that one of the earliest instances was in South Africa, where coloured traffic lights replaced human policemen in controlling the traffic at intersections and so came to be called robots. The electro-mechanical robot replacements initially stood where the human traffic controller had stood, in the middle of the intersection, but later they were moved to poles at the sides or gantries overhead, especially in one-way streets. But quite recently a town in India has even made one that looks like a human traffic cop.
And now everyone is talking about artificial text aggregators, like ChatGPT, and several of my friends have been asking them theological questions and compiling long theological essays from the answers to such questions, and I've been looking to see what they get right and what they get wrong. Though people are talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I don't think these programs are sentient, and they are a long way from reaching the level of the robots in R.U.R. a century ago. Basically ChatGPT is just a powerful database engine with a very large dataset, and works on the same GiGo (Garbage In, Garbage Out) principle as other database programs, with a more sophisticated reporting system.
The Insect Play, which I found even more interesting from the point of view of history of literature, seemed to be in the same category as the plays of Jean Genet or Samuel Beckett of 20-30 years later. Perhaps they were pioneers of the genre. The Insect Play reminded me of The Balcony by Jean Genet, a kind of precursor of the theatre of the absurd.
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