Robot wars: 100 years on, it’s time to reboot Karel Čapek’s RUR

I was honored to play Alquist in Artistic Prosperity’s virtual production of RUR over the summer. I’m glad to see Čapek’s play is getting some attention in the Guardian. Not many plays introduce a new word to the language. One that did was Karel Čapek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots that had its premiere in Prague 100 years ago this month. Every time we use the word “robot” to denote a humanoid machine, it derives from Čapek’s play, which coined the term from the Czech “robota” meaning forced labour. But a play that was hugely popular in its time – its…

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Dennis Jerz, R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), Karel Capek’s “Fantastic Melodrama” – YouTube

“In which the origin of the word “robot” is traced, precursors and context are briefly examined, and the Human soul is displayed for your consideration.” Karel Chapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) coined the word ‘robot,” which in the play was applied to an artificial worker, a living being manufactured with a chemical substitute for protoplasm. However, by the late 1920s, the word “robot” was almost universally applied to mechanisms. An existing set of artistic conventions for depicting human workers as lifeless, alienated automatons was operating at the same time we start to see an emerging new aesthetic that presents…

Why Computers Will Never Write Good Novels

If it were possible to build a digital novelist or poetry analyst, then computers would be far more powerful than they are now. They would in fact be the most powerful beings in the history of Earth. Their power would be the power of literature, which although it seems now, in today’s glittering silicon age, to be a rather unimpressive old thing, springs from the same neural root that enables human brains to create, to imagine, to dream up tomorrows. It was the literary fictions of H.G. Wells that sparked Robert Goddard to devise the liquid-fueled rocket, launching the space…

Rossum's Universal Robots

Rebooting “Rossum’s Universal Robots” for the 21st century

“It is over three hours long, and it is like a cross between Noel Coward and The Terminator” – Ivor Benjamin describing the original version of “R.U.R.”Last Wednesday I went to see an adaption of Karel Čapek’s play “Rossum’s Universal Robots”, presented at the British Library. | There was one question from the audience that suggested Benjamin had gone too far in the adaptation. “This [play] is more about philosophy than it is about iPads and mobile phones” the questioner said. They also pointed out that we view it through a filter of the downfall of communism, but that at…

How Humans Respond to Robots

The play that coined the word “robot,” Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), included violent robots, compassionate robots, and herd robots (who are content to be workers until incited by the violent robot leaders). This article explores a wide range of human responses to robots. Our expectations of robots and our response to their designs varies internationally; the Uncanny Valley curve has a different arc depending where you are. Certainly, our storytelling diverges greatly. In Japan, robots are cute and cuddly. People are apt to think about robotic pets. In the United States, by contrast, robots are scary. We tend…

Narrative, Creativity, and Evolution

My students are finishing up Hayles, My Mother was a Computer. Some years go, I remember seeing a video of a little girl in a martial arts uniform, barking out “Know what you want! Make a plan! Add a role model! Review your progress!” over and over again, while kicking, chopping and spinning. Her philosophy ought to be ours, too! Evolved Virtual Creatures Scratch Implemention of Conway’s Game of Life We have seen several cases in which authors of fiction had already worked out a complex social reaction to a technological innovation, even before that innovation existed. Artificial life is…

Rossum's Universal Robots
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RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots)

Jerz > Theater RUR [ Intro & Summary | Image Archive | Review ] R.U.R. was written in 1920, premiered in Prague early in 1921, was performed in New York in 1922, and published in English translation in 1923.  The following year, G. B. Shaw and G. K. Chesterton were among those in London participating in a public discussion of the play.  Capek responded, via The Saturday Review, to what he felt was the excessive thematic attention they and other critics paid to one of his devices: “For myself, I confess that as the author I was much more interested in men than…

Theater Resources

Jerz > About > Dennis G. Jerz [ Professional Biography | Writing Handouts | Theater Resources ] York Corpus Christi Play With the combined support of the Church and the merchants who  “sponsored” individual plays, the annual performance was a well-established tradition in the English city of York by the end of the 14th century and continued through the late 16th century. (RUR) Rossum’s Universal Robots This play introduced the world to the word “robot.” It was written by Karel Capek in 1920, premiered in Prague early in 1921, performed in New York in 1922, and published in English translation in 1923. More than Musicals: Musical Theater Educational Packets Do you…

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Curriculum Vitae

Jerz > About > Dennis G. Jerz [ Professional Biography | Writing Handouts ] Dennis G. Jerz Associate Professor of English–New Media Journalism Seton Hill University (2003-present) Contact: jerz.setonhill.edu Previous Positions Assistant Professor of English: Technical Writing University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (1998-2003) Instructor: Engineering Writing Centre Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering University of Toronto (1996-1998) Education Ph.D., English, University of Toronto (2001) “Soul and Society in a Technological Age: American Drama, 1920-1950” Advisor: F. J. Marker M.A., English, University of Virginia. Modern British literature (1992) B.A., English, with high distinction, University of Virginia (1990) Major: English; honors thesis on the plays of Sam Shepard Minor: Religious studies Publications Monograph Technology in American Drama, 1920-1950: Soul and Society…

RUR Cats

RUR Cats (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog) My first (and probably only) contribution to the LOLCats meme. In the 1920s, the Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced the world to a word that quickly displaced older terms such as “automaton.” As author Karel Capek was working out the plot, he fretted that calling them “labori” would be too stuffy. His brother Josef, a cubist painter and author, muttered, “Then call them Robots,” drawing on a Czech word meaning “menial labor” or “servitude.” The illustration is from a Josef Capek’s children’s book, A Doggie and a Pussycat: How They Wrote a Letter. Okay,…

Life, Reinvented

If the notion of hacking DNA sounds like genetic engineering, think again. Genetic engineering generally involves moving a preexisting gene from one organism to another, an activity Endy calls DNA bashing. For all its impressive and profitable results, DNA bashing is hardly creative. Proper engineering, by contrast, means designing what you want to make, analyzing the design to be sure it will work, and then building it from the ground up. And that’s what synthetic biology is about: specifying every bit of DNA that goes into an organism to determine its form and function in a controlled, predictable way, like…

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Calling All Readers! Contest!

If you could assign a reading list to the world, what books would you want people to read, and most importantly, why? —Moira Richardson —Calling All Readers! Contest! (Literary Tease) I’m still recovering from whatever it is that has struck me down this week… but Moira’s blog entry got me thinking. Even though Moira’s original post included many non-literary works, I won’t ponder what non-fiction reading I’d require. One of the coolest things about being an English professor is that you get to assign reading lists all the time… I always try to put a work on each list that I’ve…

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R.U.R. Opera

With the media opera R.U.R., we want to appreciate the Czech author Karel Capek (Czechia’s Goethe) and his importance for the European cultural expression. It is he who in R.U.R. used for the first time the expression robot, derivated of the Russian word “robota” = work. R.U.R. is a classic of science fiction literature and has nothing lost of its formative influence. The latest example is Stephen Spielberg’s movie A.I. – Artificial Intelligence which has obviously taken scenes from Capek’s play, however keeps quiet about it’s source. Central Europe is the “cradle” of the robots and not USA, even if…

Rossum's Universal Robots
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Le règne des robots

Écrite en 1920 et jouée pour la première fois à Prague l’année suivante, cette pièce de théâtre, intitulée Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.), introduit le terme robot, qui remplacera dorénavant celui d’automate. La pièce de Capek fut acclamée dans le monde entier. — Dennis G. Jerz (via an anonymous translator) —Le règne des robots (L’Encyclopédie de L’Agora) An editor from a Quebec online encyclopedia just asked me to approve a French translation of my web page on RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The request would have been more gracious if it had come before the translation was posted, but I already knew some…

Robot Nation

“The self-service checkout lines that are springing up everywhere are the first sign of the trend. | The problem, of course, is that all of these robots will eliminate a huge portion of the jobs currently held by human beings. For example, there are 3.5 million jobs in the fast food industry alone. Many of those will be lost to kiosks. Many more will be lost to robots that can flip burgers and clean bathrooms. Eventually they will all be lost. The only people who will still have jobs in the fast food industry will be the senior management team…

Robots that Suck

“When humans use a personal computer, we enter into the computer’s world. If it can’t do something, or if it crashes, too bad; we have to deal. But a robot enters into our world. If floors are uneven, if legs get in the way, if lighting conditions change, the robot has to deal.” George Musser‘s review of the Roomba robot vaccuum cleaner explains why Robot armies haven’t taken over the world yet. —Robots that Suck (Scientific American) Another quote from the article: “What makes it a breakthrough is the price, $200, which approaches the don’t-need-spousal-preapproval range.” The word Robot was popularized…