The Automaton Sequence: 1.0: What is a robot?

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To ask the question, what is a robot, may, to some people, indeed sound overly simplistic, or even pointless. We all know what a robot is; it is a mechanical tool used to alleviate the human from banal, menial tasks. In SF text, it may or may not take on the guise of the human to represent a whole host of meaning ranging from slavery and classism to an allegory of doom and mayhem. But that doesn’t answer the question; what is a robot?

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Wall-E in Pixar’s lovable Wall-E. Perhaps one of the most sophisticated films that feature the robot as a protagonist.

I bring you a new series where I will attempt to investigate, prod and peer in between the words of this deceptively simple question, for the robot, is an elderly construct that has inhabited all manner of text. It is prudent, however, to understand what I mean when I write robot, or A.I., or anything else in regards to this construct.    

Stemming from Karel Čapek’s use of the word in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), robot is a derivative of the Czech word robota which roughly translates into forced labour serfs had to perform; serfdom, or slavery. Though Čapek was the first to use the word, even though his robots are not entirely what a modern audience would equate with the term (they are biologically grown and factory assembled), it is important to understand the genisys (sorry, I had to…) of the term. For Čapek, his robata were slaves to an entitled elite, constructed by means of unusual and near taboo sciences. They, like most robots of modern SF, develop emotion which eventually leads the robots to rebellion and complete domination of Earth. There is but one human left, his mission to uncover the secret formula to robot life, but is unable to make any progress. The future of the robots is bleak for they have decimated their chance for growth.

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A photo from an early production of Čapek’s R.U.R.

Yes, there are far older instances of very similar stories such as the golem of Jewish folklore (and the silent 1915 German film, The Golem), and Mary Shelley’s archetypal Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (all manner of interpretations, but preferably Shelley’s novel or Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film interpretation), Čapek’s play solidifies the initial term symbolically and linguistically. Before the arrival of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and after the words of Shelley, Čapek had unintentionally written the exegesis of the robot genre, and it is prudent to analyse the robotic zeitgeist through Čapek’s lens.

Therefore, this series will endeavour to examine the robot through the Czech writer’s work; understanding that robots were, and still are, primarily used as synthetic slaves; a guilt-free means to banal, dreary and menial labours not fit for the human.

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I dunno about you, but I want my robot slave, NOW!

With that in mind, my next article will feature an evaluation of Čapek’s play, alongside Shelley’s Frankenstein; further exploring the proto-robot tales, anxieties of industry and the progressive scientific nature of the period of the enlightenment.

Have any favourite robot texts? Any niche ones? Or any you strongly feel should be examined? Please list them down in the comments, and maybe they’ll be featured in future articles.

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