The Man Who Coined the Word “Robot” Defends Himself

Karel Čapek explains what everyone has been getting wrong about his creation

5 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

A black and white photograph of a man overlaying an orange-tinted robot in the background with RUR printed on its chest
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum

You’re familiar with Karel Čapek, right? If not, you should be—he’s the guy who (along with his brother Josef) invented the word “robot.” Čapek introduced robots to the world in 1921, when his play “R.U.R.” (subtitled “Rossum’s Universal Robots”) was first performed in Prague. It was performed in New York City the next year, and by the year after that, it had been translated into 30 languages. Translated, that is, except for the word “robot” itself, which originally described artificial humans but within a decade of its introduction came to mean things that were mechanical and electronic in nature.

Čapek, it turns out, was a little miffed that his “robots” had been so hijacked, and in 1935, he wrote a column in the Lidové noviny “defending” his vision of what robots should be, while also resigning himself to what they had become. A new translation of this column is included as an afterword in a new English translation of R.U.R. that is accompanied by 20 essays exploring robotics, philosophy, politics, and AI in the context of the play, and it makes for fascinating reading.

R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life is edited by Jitka Čejková, a professor at the Chemical Robotics Laboratory at the University of Chemistry and Technology Prague, whose research interests arguably make her one of the most qualified people to write about Čapek’s perspective on robots. “The chemical robots in the form of microparticles that we designed and investigated, and that had properties similar to living cells, were much closer to Čapek’s original ideas than any other robots today,” Čejková explains in the book’s introduction. These microparticles can exhibit surprisingly complex autonomous behaviors under specific situations, like solving simple mazes:

“I started to call these droplets liquid robots,” says Čejková. “Just as Rossum’s robots were artificial human beings that only looked like humans and could imitate only certain characteristics and behaviors of humans, so liquid robots, as artificial cells, only partially imitate the behavior of their living counterparts.”

What is or is not called a robot is an ongoing debate that most roboticists seem to try to avoid, but personally, I appreciate the idea that very broadly, a robot is something that seems alive but isn’t—something with independent embodied intelligence. Perhaps the requirement that a robot is mechanical and electronic is too strict, although as Čapek himself realized 100 years ago, what defines a robot has escaped from the control of anyone, even its creator. Here then is his column from 1935, excerpted from R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life, released just today:


By Karel Čapek

Published in Lidové noviny, June 9, 1935

I know it is a sign of ingratitude on the part of the author, if he raises both hands against a certain popularity that has befallen something which is called his spiritual brainchild; for that matter, he is aware that by doing so he can no longer change a thing. The author was silent a goodly time and kept his own counsel, while the notion that robots have limbs of metal and innards of wire and cogwheels (or the like) has become current; he has learned, without any great pleasure, that genuine steel robots have started to appear, robots that move in various directions, tell the time, and even fly airplanes; but when he recently read that, in Moscow, they have shot a major film, in which the world is trampled underfoot by mechanical robots, driven by electromagnetic waves, he developed a strong urge to protest, at least in the name of his own robots. For his robots were not mechanisms. They were not made of sheet metal and cogwheels. They were not a celebration of mechanical engineering. If the author was thinking of any of the marvels of the human spirit during their creation, it was not of technology, but of science. With outright horror, he refuses any responsibility for the thought that machines could take the place of people, or that anything like life, love, or rebellion could ever awaken in their cogwheels. He would regard this somber vision as an unforgivable overvaluation of mechanics or as a severe insult to life.

The author of the robots appeals to the fact that he must know the most about it: and therefore he pronounces that his robots were created quite differently—that is, by a chemical path. The author was thinking about modern chemistry, which in various emulsions (or whatever they are called) has located substances and forms that in some ways behave like living matter. He was thinking about biological chemistry, which is constantly discovering new chemical agents that have a direct regulatory influence on living matter; about chemistry, which is finding—and to some extent already building—those various enzymes, hormones, and vitamins that give living matter its ability to grow and multiply and arrange all the other necessities of life. Perhaps, as a scientific layman, he might develop an urge to attribute this patient ingenious scholarly tinkering with the ability to one day produce, by artificial means, a living cell in the test tube; but for many reasons, amongst which also belonged a respect for life, he could not resolve to deal so frivolously with this mystery. That is why he created a new kind of matter by chemical synthesis, one which simply behaves a lot like the living; it is an organic substance, different from that from which living cells are made; it is something like another alternative to life, a material substrate in which life could have evolved if it had not, from the beginning, taken a different path. We do not have to suppose that all the different possibilities of creation have been exhausted on our planet. The author of the robots would regard it as an act of scientific bad taste if he had brought something to life with brass cogwheels or created life in the test tube; the way he imagined it, he created only a new foundation for life, which began to behave like living matter, and which could therefore have become a vehicle of life—but a life which remains an unimaginable and incomprehensible mystery. This life will reach its fulfillment only when (with the aid of considerable inaccuracy and mysticism) the robots acquire souls. From which it is evident that the author did not invent his robots with the technological hubris of a mechanical engineer, but with the metaphysical humility of a spiritualist.

Well then, the author cannot be blamed for what might be called the worldwide humbug over the robots. The author did not intend to furnish the world with plate metal dummies stuffed with cogwheels, photocells, and other mechanical gizmos. It appears, however, that the modern world is not interested in his scientific robots and has replaced them with technological ones; and these are, as is apparent, the true flesh-of-our-flesh of our age. The world needed mechanical robots, for it believes in machines more than it believes in life; it is fascinated more by the marvels of technology than by the miracle of life. For which reason, the author who wanted—through his insurgent robots, striving for a soul—to protest against the mechanical superstition of our times, must in the end claim something which nobody can deny him: the honor that he was defeated.

Excerpted from R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life, by Karel Čapek, edited by Jitka Čejková. Published by The MIT Press. Copyright © 2024 MIT. All rights reserved.

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