How can one speak about robots and literature without mentioning Josef and Karel Čapek? Before them, the word “Robot” in English did not have the meaning it has now. This word was introduced to the United Kingdom during the Victorian age. It meant “serfdom”.
Karel Čapek is a Czech writer and dramaturge of the beginning of the XXth century. He wrote the play called R. U. R. in which the word “robot” is used the way we use it now. His brother Josef is the one who came up with naming the humanoid machines “slaves” in Czech, “Roboti”. In Karel’s play, the robots were the slaves of humans. And if you think about it, our robots are like the “perfect slave”. They do what they were made to do, they can work all day, no need to pay them, they do not sleep nor complain since they do not have a real mind of their own or a will to go against. But what if they could be made like humans, so similar to us that they could start having feelings and emotions? Should they still be considered slaves? Would they rebel to get freedom like what happened when humans were enslaved? Multiple writers have fantasized about the possible rebellion of robots. Karel Čapek wrote about their revolution and the abolition of the human species. But he isn’t the only writer to influence the world of robotics.
Issac Asimov, a major American science fiction writer highly influenced literature and robotics with his works. He came up with The Three Laws of Robotics in 1942 in his short story Runaround, plus the zeroth law later on. Those laws which are supposed to bring safety to humanity and avoid a rebellion are:
- “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
- “A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”
- “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
- The Zeroth Law “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
These laws are not used in real robotics — you may have heard of robots that are made to kill in wars, like drones. Scientists and specialists in Robo-ethics have tried to program those laws into robots without much success as robots nowadays are not sophisticated enough to act upon those orders. The four laws have been revisited and rewritten to adapt to the needs of the military and other industries.
Knowing that our brain is a network of cells that exchange information through electrical impulses, our similarities with robots become more and more flagrant. Satoshi Hase, a member of the Artificial Intelligence Society in Japan, wrote A Story For You. The book explores a futuristic world where a woman and her team build an artificial intelligence with the same mental capacities as a human, which ends up writing a story for the main character. This book poses a question: what differentiates them from a human —being born with electric connections instead of biological ones? Is the human mind more complex than that or are we sophisticated robots ourselves?
One of the reasons we find such fascination in the “electronic slaves” is their similarity to us. By giving them humanoid forms and thinking about our similarities, we restore the humanity that we take from them the moment we build them. We consistently consider them objects, but we keep trying to make them closer to human beings. This subject welcomes a world of possibilities for writers and fields, as well as questions to ask in studies of robotics, artificial intelligence and Robo-ethics. They are worlds that influence each other.