An unlikely robot

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on July 10, 2020 Published on July 09, 2020


A century ago, in the same year Isaac Asimov was born, the word ‘robot’ was coined. An analysis of what robots have represented in literature about our world

* Olivaw, American writer Isaac Asimov’s most interesting creation, is guided by the Zeroth Law of Robotics, which deems that no robot can harm humanity through action or inaction.

This year marks the birth centenary of American writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92), one of the most popular science fiction writers of all time. From amongst his wildly prolific output of over 400 books, the two most enduring strands of his bibliography are the Foundation and the Robot series. The two universes are linked by R Daneel Olivaw, a robot who has the ability to influence human beings mentally, to get them around to his point of view. Olivaw, Asimov’s most interesting creation, is guided by the Zeroth Law of Robotics, which deems that no robot can harm humanity through action or inaction.

By 2020’s standards, the idea of altruistic robots manipulating intergalactic events to bring about ‘world peace’ might sound naive. But Asimov’s robots were, in fact, always supposed to come from a morally airtight place. Susan Calvin, the “robopsychologist” featured in several Asimov stories, once said that the difference between humans and robots was simple: Robots were “essentially decent”.

Asimov’s stories insist that robots, even when they end up causing death and destruction, are well-intentioned.This is particularly interesting when you consider the historical origins of the word “robot” — coined in the year of Asimov’s birth, 1920, when Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) published his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a tragedy wherein an inventor called Rossum develops an army of artificial people called roboti (robots). The robots are initially content to serve man’s mechanical and industrial needs, but by the third act they have risen in rebellion and end up killing every human being except Alquist, Rossum’s chief engineer, because he “works with his hands”, like the Robots. “Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. Do not spare the men. Do not spare the women. Preserve only the factories, railroads, machines, mines, and raw materials. Destroy everything else. Then return to work. Work must not cease.”

It is important to note that Capek’s robots were not made of metal but “synthetic flesh and blood”; they anticipated their own eerily human-like descendants. For the author, mechanisation was a philosophy with equal and opposite effects — while robots would develop a human-like sentience of sorts (leading to the rebellion and so on), human beings would grow more and more robotic. Their decisions would become increasingly algorithmic. Their emotional selves would recede and, eventually, become extinct. This last bit is reinforced by the narrative arc of Rossum, whom we see both as the young, driven inventor and an old, arrogant fool who wants to best God. Capek wished to write a comedy, partly of science, partly of truth. The odd inventor, Mr Rossum (which translates to “Mr Brain”), represents the scientific materialism of the last century. In one of the supplements published alongside later editions of R.U.R., Capek wrote of Mr Rossum’s motives:

“His desire to create an artificial man — in the chemical and biological, not the mechanical sense — is inspired by a foolish and obstinate wish to prove God unnecessary and absurd. Young Rossum is the young scientist, untroubled by metaphysical ideas; scientific experiment to him is the road to industrial production. He is not concerned to prove but to manufacture.”

It’s not surprising then that Asimov didn’t like Čapek’s play. According to Asimov, R.U.R. was “terribly bad” but would remain “immortal for that one word”. In Capek’s uncompromising vision of a robot-ruled world, there is of course no space for genteel characters such as Olivaw — even though the play ends with a pair of robots falling in love. The implication there is that the lovebirds “become” human beings, or a new hybrid, at the very least. Robots still remain a case of us vs them.

Capek’s eventual target, of course, was industrial capitalism and the worldwide push towards ‘efficiency’ around WWI. He seemed to understand that as capitalism grew to exert a stranglehold on global sociopolitical processes, its handprints would be visible in the way people talked, behaved and even protested. This is evident, for example, in how corporate boycotts are deployed as a strategy to combat hate speech and fake news. In recent years, sponsors supporting controversial American commentators such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have been forced to withdraw support owing to public pressure. Aggrieved survivors of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in the US, for example, criticised Ingraham for making fun of their anti-gun stance. Overnight, a bunch of Ingraham’s sponsors cancelled their ad spots on her show.

As a prophetic section in R.U.R. goes: “It means that each factory will be making Robots of a different color, a different nationality, a different tongue; they’ll all be different — as different from one another as fingerprints; they’ll no longer be able to conspire with one another; and we, we people will help to foster their prejudices and cultivate their mutual lack of understanding, you see? So that any given Robot, to the day of its death, right to the grave, will forever hate a Robot bearing the trademark of another factory.”

Aditya Mani jha is a Delhi-based freelancer

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Published on July 09, 2020
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