Robot Dramas: Autonomous Machines in the Limelight on Stage and in Society

A thoughtful overview of robots in culture, addressing the fear and hope that go hand-in-hand when humans reflect upon, fictionalize, and create our relationships with with mechanical workers of all stripes. Aaron Dubrow, National Science Foundation media officer, includes his perceptions of a panel on robots in theater, where I brought up the legacy of the 1920s Czech play that introduced the word “robot.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 3.41.04 PMTheater is not an arena where the NSF is funding robot research. However, artists, musicians and producers are often early adopters and innovative users of emerging technologies. Moreover, artists create the narratives that subtly influence our perceptions. In the case of science fiction, this influence often shapes the development of the phenomenon they depict — think Jules Verne’s submarines or Arthur C. Clarke’s depictions of space colonization.

What could Rostrum’s Robots and their contemporary theatrical descendants tells us about our robot future?

The evening began with a primer on “R.U.R.” from Dennis Jerz, professor of English at Seton Hill University. Rossum’s robots were not “buckets of bolts,” as commonly thought, but rather “lab meat,” akin to clones or synthetic humanoids.

Most of the Rossum’s robots were bland and unthinking, content to work in factories to improve the humans’ standard of living. But some robots were altered at the request of a pro-robot activist in such a way that they develop self-awareness. This consciousness leads to a robot revolt, where all of the humans but one are killed. — Aaron Dubrow, Huffington Post

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