The Short, Strange Life of the First Friendly Robot

Japan’s Gakutensoku was a giant pneumatic automaton that toured through Asia—until it mysteriously disappeared

11 min read
Face Time: Makoto Nishimura (left) and his team designed Gakutensoku’s head so that it could express human affect.
Photo: Kagaku Chishiki

In 1923, a play featuring artificial humans opened in Tokyo. Rossum’s Universal Robots—or R.U.R., as it had become known—had premiered two years earlier in Prague and had already become a worldwide sensation. The play, written by Karel Čapek, describes the creation of enslaved synthetic humans, or robots—a term derived from robota, the Czech word for “forced labor.” Čapek’s robots, originally made to serve their human masters, gained consciousness and rebelled, soon killing all humans on Earth. In the play’s final scene, the robots reveal that they possess emotions just like we do, and the audience is left wondering whether they would also achieve the ability to reproduce—the only thing still separating robots from humans.

The play was deeply disturbing for Makoto Nishimura, a 40-year-old professor of marine biology at the Hokkaido Imperial University, in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo. As Nishimura would later explain in a newspaper article, he was troubled because the play convincingly portrayed “the emergence of a perverse world in which humans become subordinate to artificial humans.” A machine modeled on a human being but designed to work as a slave implies that the model itself (that is, we humans) are slaves, too, he argued. More concerning for Nishimura was that a struggle between humans and artificial humans was an aberration, something that went against nature.

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