Fictional Chatbots: R.U.R. Rossum’s Universal Robots

Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by Sean B

R.U.R., also known as Rossum’s Universal Robots, was written in 1920 by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The play premiered on the 25th of January in 1921. Čapek’s play was the first appearance of the word Robot in the English language and in Science Fiction. The word robot is derived from the Czech word for “forced labor.”

Rossum’s Universal Robots – The Play

R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots, by Karel Čapek.

In the play, it is the year 2000 and the main character Helena travels to an island where Rossum, a scientist, manufactures the robots by adapting a process his uncle developed. He used a unique protoplasm developed by his uncle that allowed him to make the robots. Rossum’s Robots are human-like creatures that are built by machines. This disturbs Helena, who fights for the rights of the robots.

While they aren’t the typical robots we know today, they were created beings that had artificial intelligence, and they introduced the concept of robots to the world. But back to the story.

Rossum’s manufacturing of these robots eventually leads to an industrial revolution of sorts that leads to cheaper manufacturing and labor. So everyone is happy, except the robots, which inevitably leads to a robot uprising where humanity is wiped out.

Now the robots were finally happy, but Helena had destroyed Rossum’s formula for the protoplasm, so they couldn’t reproduce and they eventually die out as well.

The BBC production of Rossums Universal Robots aired in 1938.

Adaptations

On February 11, 1938, R.U.R. became the first sci-fi television show. The show was a live airing of an excerpt of the play, this was where the word “robot” first spread beyond the theatre going crowd. In 1948 the BBC aired another TV adaptation, this time the entire play was aired. In 1941, BBC Radio presented a radio play of Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Sadly none of these early versions survive, but in 1989, BBC Radio 3 aired a new version and this one is available in the BBC Archives.

Other adaptations of the play include an audio version by the Hollywood Theater of the Ear that is available on the collection 2000X Tales of the Next Millennia. An electro-rock musical called Save The Robots, produced in 2014 with the New York Punk band Hagatha, is based on R.U.R.

And my favorite, on November 26, 2015 a version of the play was presented at the National Library of Technology in Prague, with actual robots performing all of the roles.

Honoring Rossum’s Universal Robots

Many sci-fi writers have honored both Karel Čapek and R.U.R. itself in their works, including:

  • Eric the Robot: Constructed in Britain in 1928 for public appearances, Eric bore the letters R.U.R. across his chest.
  • Loss of Sensation: In this Soviet film based on the novel Iron Riot, which was similar to R.U.R., all the robots had R.U.R. prominently displayed.
  • Star Trek: In Season 3 episode 19, titled Requiem for Methuselah, an android is named Rayna Kapec is taught to love by none other than Captain Kirk.
  • Dr. Who: In a 1977 episode titled “The Robots of Death,” the robot servants turned on their human masters under the influence of an individual named Taren Capel.
  • Dollhouse: In this TV series, the evil corporation is known as Rossum Corp.
  • Futurama: In the episode “Fear of a Bot Planet” the planet inhabited by robots is called “Chapek 9”

Rossum's Universal Robots, final scene of Act 3.

The Impact of Rossum’s Universal Robots

One of the more obvious impacts of R.U.R. is the sci-fi theme that involves an AI creation taking over the world or killing humanity. We see this in some of the more popular sci-fi movies ever made, including both The Terminator series and The Matrix series.

Modified versions of the AI takeover theme can even be seen in Wall-E, where the ship’s AI computer becomes the villain. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Borg appear numerous times trying to destroy humanity.

The impact on the development of chatbots is less obvious, but there is one. Aside from developing the term that makes up part of the name for chatbots, Rossum’s Robots were, as I mentioned above, created beings with AI and they spoke to their “masters” and did their bidding before rising up against them.

In Conclusion

Whether or not Rossum’s Robots are actually chatbots, we owe a great deal to Karel Čapek, not only for giving us the word “robot” but also for giving us one of the best sci-fi themes that we still see today. More than that, we owe him for developing the concept of the robot into one that not only does our bidding but is able to learn on its own and act.

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