The word “robot” comes to us from a 1921 Czech play by Karel Capek called R.U.R., which in the play stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. The work is the originator of the Robot Revolution trope, as in it a machine class of servants made to serve the play’s industrialists overthrow their greedy, controlling masters and begin the first of countless robot uprisings in science fiction. Beyond the social commentary on class struggle, the play serves as a touchstone for how we imagine our relationship with robots.
As we continue to make advances in the field of robotics, robots are becoming an ever-greater fixture of our lives. Science fiction titans ranging from Isaac Asimov to Gene Roddenberry have mused about what the rise of robots says about and means for humanity.
Hopes, dreams, and fears of robot revolutions aside, however, the reality of robots in our world today is as varied as it is hopeful.
One of the defining features of Capek’s robots is that they are used for the cheapest and most menial manual labor possible. As a result, they are looked down on by the upper classes.
By contrast, medical robots do things which only the most highly-trained medical experts can match. Moreover, they can often perform some tasks, such as especially intricate or delicate aspects of some surgeries, with even more care and precision than humans. Their life saving potential makes them one of the most exciting robotic possibilities going forward.
Where Roddenberry envisioned us preparing “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” robots might yet beat us in the space exploration game as well. The Mars Rovers and other robots in space have given us some of our best and most interesting data about other planets and space at large.
The use of drones has sparked major ethical debates in recent years. However, as Capek’s robots and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s data shows, whether robots are ethical or not depends entirely on how we conceive of and use them. Drone technology can have massive implications for gaining intelligence and flying missions too dangerous for pilots. The ethical nature of those missions, however, is still up to humans.
That’s true of all robot use. As robots continue to play a greater role in our lives, how we imagine and choose to use those robots says more about us than them.