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Let's Pretend We're Robot צולם על צד משאית אוכל, פסטיבל SXSW, אוסטין 2015, אורי אביב
Uri Aviv

Lead | What is a Robot?

We’re marking the Robot centennial, 100 years of revolution and evolution, aspiration and agony, a century of mutual inspiration between industry and culture, art and policy, science and science fiction. At the heart of the Utopia “Master and Slaves” edition is the age-old naïve and un-answerable question – What is a Robot?

What is a Robot?

Are Data and Optimus Prime, robots? How about the Voyager 1 NASA space probe? “Small Wonder” Vicky? The Golem of Prague? The iRobot “Rumba” cleaner? Rick Deckard? HAL 9000? The Monolith? The bot on the other side of the chat with your bank? You? Me?

As basic and simplistic as it may be, this question is philosophically ever-present and extremely pertinent to our times. Naive questions are at the heart of science fiction, sending us at Warp speeds far beyond the limits of the familiar and banal into unknown territories of cosmic space and unexpected depths of thought and consciousness – absurd, awesome, fascinating. This is why we support, examine and celebrate the creation of these speculative science fiction “final frontiers” at Utopia.

The robot is a symbol and a parable; political, technological, social, and philosophical.

The robot is the working class, workers who perform difficult and dangerous tasks but are necessary for modern society (or are they?).

The robot is a symbol of development and progress, innovation, and industry. It allows us, in its almost-but-not-too-human image, to simplify and anthropomorphize the complex and layered discussion between man and machine, humanity and technology.

The human but mechanical Robot, its uncanny vitality, the inanimate object, yet – animate, and yet still not part of the animal kingdom, all contradictions leading us to various ancient philosophical texts and debates regarding body and mind, consciousness and soul, life and death, creation and destruction, ON and OFF.

The direct descendants of the Robot – the Android and the AI, the Artificial Intelligence – expand our consciousness as they challenge the very definition of consciousness, blurring the boundaries of brain/computer, human/divine, death and eternal life.

The Robot’s beauty lies with it being a human conceptual construct, inherent to that are the ambiguities and flexibilities of the term itself. The Robot will be whatever we want it to be, and thus two types of questions beg to be asked – What do we want the Robot to be? And who are the “We”, answering that first question? Which types of Robots express what sort of desires? What vision of the future do the robots serve, bring about, and who are the engineers, titans of industry, visionaries, propheteers, who are masters of the robots?

To go back to our early question regarding Data and Optimus Prime, Deckard, Voyager 1, the Monolith and the Bank’s Chatbot, we’re extremely inclusive at Utopia. Our answer would be “yes, yes, yes, yes and yes”. All are robots. as are we.

In the Beginning Was the Word

Celebrating the centennial of the Robot is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the creation of the actual concept, the term, the word, Robot, first used not by an engineer or technology entrepreneur, but by a writer and playwright.

In 1921 Czech writer and playwright Karl Čapek published his seminal and prophetic text, deeply understanding his moment in time and heralding the future. “Rossum’s Universal Robots” (RUR), the play he wrote, presented a futuristic fantasy confronting industry and humanity, pitting the global commercial enterprise with the aspirational values ​​of Humanism, waning in the futuristic play even as they were slowly being formulated and implemented in the legal and social realities of his days.

Capek accomplished this in his play with the inventive metaphor of the Robots – man-made artificial creatures, biological automatons created by the genius scientist, industrialist, and capitalist, “Rossum”. The robots are manufactured in Rossum’s factories, designed and built to replace men in particularly difficult, dangerous, or boring tasks. The word “Robot” was invented especially for the play – the theatrical premiere was also the worldwide premiere of the word and concept of the Robot.

המחזה R.U.R, הרובוטים האוניברסאליים של רוסום

Cover of RUR, Rossum’s Universal Robots, in one of many variations, as a novel

These days the robot is clearly defined and characterized as an artificial, sometimes humanoid, automata – metallic, mechanical, not to say robotic. Capek’s robots were in actuality utterly different. In the play the robots are created from organic material and pass as humans, one cannot discern between them and the humans around them, ordering them around. These days we would probably refer to them as Androids such as the Replicants from “Blade Runner” or the Cylons of “Battlestar Galactica”.

In the play, the robots rebel against their creators and owners. (Almost) all of humanity is slaughtered. The creation of the Robots brings about the end of humanity but it’s also the creation story of a new society, the Robot society. The first Robot story is also the first story of a Robot rebellion, the rise of the machines.

RUR is far from being the first story telling of man, a man, assuming the power of creation by his own hands (specifically man, not woman, to drive home the point). Utilizing creativity and ingenuity, technical prowess and artistic expertise, courage and impudence (and often going against nature and/or the will of the God/s), man creates something in his image. It’s a story as old as stories go, part of Greek mythology, Jewish mysticism (The Golem which of all places takes place in Prague, the Capital of the Czech Republic), philosophical debate and literature.

Crafting quasi-human sculptures and marvelous mechanical doll-machines is part of the long history of art and engineering. When writing RUR there were other terms in existence, known well-enough and at-the-ready, such as Automatons and Androids. Why invent and use a new word? In “Rossum’s Universal Robots”, the word “Robot”, with its relevance and meaning, is at the heart of the play (and to be precise, the pair of terms, “Robot” and “Rossum”).

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890, one of the most well-known and iconic portrayals of the famous story from Greek mythology

פיגמליון וגלתאה מאת ז'אן-לאון ז'רום, בעיבוד עבור פרויקט Galath3a מאת גילי רון

An adaptation of Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme, by Gili Ron, 2021, as part of the Galath3a project

פרס הגולם, אוטופיה, מיכאל רוזנוב

Image of the Golem Awards, the film awards given out at the Utopia International Film Festival, designed by Michael Rozanov

The term “Robot” was coined by Karl’s brother, Joseph Capek (whose political and public criticism of the Nazi regime led to his death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but that’s a whole other story…). In Czech it implies forced labor and/or slavery. The Robots created for the play add another dimension to the mythological, religious, philosophical, and familiar story of creating a new, human-like creature, by a man, in man’s image. The added dimension is quantitative, but qualitative. Man creates not one single being in his image, but a great many. Not only one extraordinary life-like machine, one exquisite and beautiful sculpture that comes to life, but a multitude, an enormous number, a whole man-made society, a clear metaphor for an entire (exploited) social class of (forced) laborers, their very meaning lies in their name – Robots.

The play anthropomorphizes, gives human shape and representation, to grand technological, political and social processes of the time. Europe is overflowing with tumultuous revolutions and counterrevolutions. In the West – the second industrial revolution brings forth the production line and thousands become small and insignificant screws in colossal machines of industry. In the East – the Bolshevik Revolution encouraged low-wage and low-class workers and famously calls out – Workers of the World, Unite!

Capek’s contemporary and fellow Czech, Franz Kafka, writes about the inhumanity and insignificance in the face of the power of the new and ever-growing government bureaucracies of the time. Many have written about the monstrous consequences of the industrialization of the war that just ended, the War to End War. Capek was well aware of the symbolism he endowed in his creation and creatures; the desire to replace human beings in dangerous, hard or boring tasks, the connotation of forced labor or slavery, the context of replacing human workers with machines on a massive scale, their rebellion against their masters. The right word at the right time.

Ford’s famous assembly line in action

The play was a huge success. RUR premiered in London’s West End, on Broadway in New York City (with Spencer Tracy as one of the Robots!), and even in Hebrew in 1930’s Tel Aviv, at the Ohel Theater. Altogether, it was translated and played in about 30 languages ​​worldwide.

With the play’s success, the term at the heart of it also gained popularity. The media began to make extensive use of the word “Robot” throughout the 1920s, a decade of technological breakthroughs, mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization. An automatic system that replaces ticket-sellers on the London Underground? A “Robot-ticket-seller”. A traffic light replaces the traffic policeman at major intersections? “The Robot Police-Man” (no, not “Robocop”, not yet anyway).

Industrialists and technology entrepreneurs labelled the robot as a science & engineering ambition, a goal, an objective that expresses innovation, defines progress and projects technological superiority. Thus began an ongoing dialogue between the story of the robot in the worlds of art & culture, and the engineering, scientific, industrial robot. Hovering above this conversation is the naive but obvious dilemma we began with, What is a Robot? What can a robot do? What is it supposed to do? What is its purpose?

הרובוט השוטר

The Robot Policeman, the robot appears in London, 1927

רובוט כרטיסן

The Robot Ticket-Seller, an automated ticket machine in the London Underground system, 1933

The fact that the robots, beginning with those in Capek’s play and on with the many robots in pop-culture, media, and in public perception, are meant to replace humans in dangerous, hard, or boring work raises further questions. What is work? Do humans “need” to work at all? What is dangerous, difficult, or boring work? What is difficulty, danger, or boredom? And since robots are meant to replace humans, the questions we pose about robots are actually directed towards humans …. What can humans do? What are we supposed to do? What is our purpose?

These questions have been asked since time immemorial but we’re in the midst of a complicated period in which these questions are asked again and again, with a newfound urgency, and rightly so. It seems as if the answer to the question “Should humans direct traffic?” has been resolved, but should they continue to mine coal or cobalt? (1) What about assembling iPhones? Should humans continue to paint counterfeits and replicas of oil paintings, wholesale? (2) And what about content monitoring and moderation on Facebook? (3) A job requiring one to view death threats, animal abuse and revenge porn, done by a few so that we, the general populace and Facebook “users”, will not be exposed to horrendous and traumatic content as we continuously scroll while at work, home on the couch or on the toilet? Most importantly, will humans or robots be the ones to process, pack, ship and deliver our orders from Amazon (4), AliExpress, Wolt, or Uber Eats?

Cobalt mining done by child-labor in the Congo, image from a report by The Guardian, Image: Sebastian Meyer/Corbis via Getty Images

ציורי שמן בסין

A tourist takes a picture of a replica artist painting a Van Gogh in the Chinese village of Dafen, Shenzen (Image: Shutterstock)

Lords of Land, Masters of Robots

Let’s return to the title of the Capek’s play, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. Much has been written about Capek’s imaginary humanoids, the robots. Little attention has been paid to Rossum, the industrialist tycoon and brilliant scientist who first created the robots and then the factories that produced them at industrial quantities. “Rossum” is but a name, but it being “just a name”, it has not been given proper attention. Not unlike any number of biblical figures, mythological deities or pop culture icons (from Chronos to Moses to Inspector Gadget), his invented name is replete with meaning. Rossum in Czech implies logic, intellect, reason.

The name of the play, “Rossum’s Universal Robots” can thus potentially be read as “The Universal Servitude to Intellect” or possibly “Universal Servitude, Lead to by Reason”. According to Capek, cold logic and rationale bring forth the replacement of the human with the non-human (in hard, dangerous, or boring labor, to be sure), and for the sake of progress, perhaps the enforcement of slavery. Capek saw the Gordian Knot between enormous private capital, global trade, advanced technologies, the rise of the machines and the demise of humanity.

The “Roaring Twenties” of the past century were also the last and particularly turbulent years of a certain kind of capitalism and a certain kind of capitalist. The richest man in the world at the time was infamous industrialist and engineer Henry Ford, the founder of the car company that bears his name to this day. Although Ford is associated with vehicles, his significant contribution to history has been the industrial assembly line. The innovative manufacturing method implemented by the Ford Motor Company made it an industry leader for decades and made Ford one of the wealthiest people in the world. Ford is no less identified with the assembly line than he is with the famous Model-T, of course, alongside anti-Semitism, racism, and many other forms of bigotry and hatred (also unsurprisingly, a staunch opponent of workers’ rights who has squashed union attempts in his factories).

A century separates Henry Ford and Elon Musk, the latter warns time and time again of the existential danger in the rise of AGI, Artificial General Intelligence, that will undoubtedly kill all humans, all the while boasting that Tesla, the car company he owns and runs, is the largest robotics company in the world, and under his instruction and based on existing algorithms that drive(-assist) their (somewhat) autonomous cars, had begun work on the Tesla-Bot, humanoid robots.

Amazon (3) and Facebook (4) employ more and more robots in their factories, making people work for meager wages and little to no rights, requiring their human workers (usually referred to as partners or associates, not employees) to perform particularly hard, dangerous, or boring tasks alongside (mechanical) robots and managed and controlled by (digital, algorithmic) robots.

Charlie Chaplin presented this diabolical relationship with great talent in his classic moving picture “Modern Times” (1936). The industrial machine remains far from perfect. For it to perform well, fulfill its tasks and meet its potential, human workers are required alongside it, adjusting and adapting themselves to the great machine, servicing the machine, becoming a part of the machine, one with the machine. We are promised a Promised Land, prophesized an Earthly paradise, a techno-Utopian Elysium Fields where machines serve us, replacing us in all our hard, dangerous, or boring tasks. Instead, we live in a Dystopian reversal of that vision. Humanity serves the machines it has created. Whether we are Cobalt miners in the Congo, production line workers in China, content moderators in Malaysia, or taxi drivers in London, we answer to robots, enslaved in various forms to the local and global machine, serving the will of the master, the machine, the algorithm, Rossum. Who’s the Robot now?

This is an intermediary stage, isn’t it? So say the Rossums of our time. Historically, things have never been better. We’re in an age of bliss. An Earthly paradise. Some fruits of scientific understanding and technological development may not be completely ripe, yet. It will all happen very soon, we’re moments away from the prophesized Utopia. It’s a transitional period to be sure, an inevitable intermediate stage in which the beautiful rays of light from the Utopian sunrise are not yet shared by all. Only a tiny portion of us can see those first glimpses of Sunlight from high a-top the mountain, relishing in the beauty of the sunrise, enjoying its warmth and comfort. This’s what the industrialists, engineers, and technology entrepreneurs, the Rossums, repeatedly claim. For the robotic majority, the Sunrise is hidden; one cannot tell if it’s even happening at all. Some of us are in the valley below, others stuck underground, the mountain shadows us. For some Utopia seems reachable, the Sunlight a few steps away, for others it’s a complete fantasy, a dangerous and manipulative fabrication, completely untethered from reality.

בזוס מקבל סיכה

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, presenting himself with his well-earnt Astronaut badge, upon his return from space, in the maiden manned voyage by the company he founded, Blue Origin (July, 2021). In his remarks he thanked all Amazon customers and employees that made his space flight possible (photo by Joe Riddle, Getty Images)

מארק צוקרברג חוגג את 4 ביולי

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO Facebook (now Meta), celebrating the 2021 American Independence Day, the 4th of July, by uploading on his Instagram profile (a social media company he owns) a video of himself riding a prestigious and pricey hydrofoil surfboard as he waves the American flag.

Masters and Slaves

This is only the first layer of a complex and multi-dimensional discussion. It’s clear to us all why it is essential to reduce hard, dangerous, or particularly boring work done by humans. Doing so is a net good, but the issue is ever more complex. We’re all aware that while we don’t much appreciate difficulty, it’s sometimes necessary. Hardship is part of life, part of living. So is danger. Without any boredom, this article, and the rest of our magazine, might not have been written.

What is a job? What does a “world without work” look like? And would such a world really be a Utopia, an Earthly paradise, or perhaps a terrible Dystopia – and for whom? And possibly most importantly – how and by whom these futures are imagined, narrated, designed and realized.

All of this and so much more can be found in the original play that brought the robot into existence, as well as the Robot uprising. A workers’ revolution alongside questions on the proper, Utopian social order. Should we create global robots, or is it wiser to develop regional-national ones, with different languages, cultures and “skin”-coloring that separate them, so that they apart, despise their different brethren, much like people do, so as to make sure they do not unite and overthrow us? Do machines have a soul? If that’s a possibility, a choice by man himself, should man create a machine with a soul? If we create human replacements, is it right to give them the capacity for pain?

And, of course, can robots make other robots? All of these difficult dilemmas converge on the basic question of procreation, the ability to create offspring and the next generation, the capacity of humanity and of man, and his creations/successors, to reproduce, to love, and the noble, implicit connection between this defining question to all the rest. Creativity and love, suffering and work, genesis and death.

All this and more in issue # 3 of the Utopia magazine – “Masters and Slaves” and at Utopia events throughout this year.

Master and Slaves, cover art for Utopia edition #3, design by Yuval Brenner


Footnotes and Other Stray Thoughts

1 // 60% of the global Cobalt supply comes from The Congo, in most part from unregulated mines, many use child labor in slavery conditions. Cobalt is a necessary metal in the production of electric batteries, making it an extremely valuable natural resource in a world determined to transition to electric power.

The Guardian, Robin McKie, 2021, Child labour, toxic leaks: the price we could pay for a greener future.

2 // The village of Dafen in Shenzhen, China, was well-known for its thousands of artisan denizens, extremely proficient artists making hand-made replicas (and/or counterfeits) of famous paintings. The village was at its peak ~15 years ago, during the bubble days just prior to the financial crash of 2008. It had since seen a change in activity, a decline in arts production and a transformation into a tourist attraction.

Financial Times, Griselda Murray Brown, 2015, How the fake art industry is forging ahead.

Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Kaiman, 2016, On the Ground: Van Gogh lives here. So does Rembrandt. A Chinese village where the great masters live on (in replication).

Artsy.net, Frances Arnold, 2017, The World’s Art Factory Is in Jeopardy.

3 // In recent years the hideous job (not to say difficult, dangerous and boring robotic work) of social media content moderation had been exposed. It’s been reported on the sidelines of tech news for close to a decade but had received mainstream attention in the past few years, especially as governmental and corporate incompetence and maleficence had become clear. The effects of over/under/mal-moderation on cultural, social, political and geo-political systems had become apparent, and so have the immediate victims – the moderators themselves.

The Verge, Casey Newton, 2019, The Trauma Floor.

4 // Amazon is incorporating ever more robots in its fulfillment centers and logistics warehouses, with the goal of simplifying and optimizing human-work, slowly but surely lowering human-employee numbers to necessary minimums. This has been reported on vigorously in the past few years:

Vox, Jason Del Rey, 2019, How robots are transforming Amazon warehouse jobs — for better and worse.