The Rossum Universal Robot Factory perfects the production of mechanical men and women. The formula was developed originally by old Rossum, but it was left to his son, an engineer, to manufacture the robots. Robots know no joy, no desire to take a solitary walk, no personal wish of any kind. They are highly developed, with mechanisms devised for only one purpose: work.
The robots manufactured by Rossum’s Universal Robot Factory are so lifelike, however, that when the president’s daughter, Helena Glory, calls at the factory and is shown around by Harry Domin, general manager, she can hardly believe that the robots are not human. Helena was sent by the Humanity League on a mission to gain better living conditions for the robots. Helena knows that when the robots begin to act strangely, as they sometimes do, they are destroyed and their parts are used to make new robots. She is dismayed to find that the robots she meets and talks with in the factory do not care whether they are killed or are starved. They think of nothing but their work. They talk rationally, answering her questions, but they seem to have no desires or feelings beyond their given jobs. Domin and the other executives are willing to have her preach to the robots all she wishes.
In the warehouses are hundreds of thousands of robots waiting to be shipped all over the world. Domin tries to convince Helena of the rightness of the new era. Now, humanity is no longer effective. People are too imperfect, too expensive, too immature. Although Domin cannot agree that robots should be freed and allowed human rights, he admits that sometimes they act oddly. Often one would gnash its teeth, throw things about, and then stand still. The attack is similar to epilepsy, and the robot has to go to the stamping-mill to be destroyed. Helena believes these are signs of developing a soul. The managers are working on a pain-nerve. They think that if the robots were to feel pain, these attacks could be foreseen and treated.
The executives try also to convince Helena of the virtue of robots by pointing out to her that the prices of all manufactured and farm goods drop almost to nothing. Where Helena can see only the millions of humans out of work, the managers can see a world in which no human being has to work. People can then sit back and enjoy the labors of mechanical workers. Only Mr. Alquist, head of the works department, disagrees with that notion. Alquist can see the joy that people find only in working and creating. The others quickly vote him down.
Without prior warning, Domin tells Helena that he loves her and cannot bear to lose her. Puzzling even herself, she accepts him. Ten years pass. The managers try to keep from Helena the news that the robots are causing trouble. All over the world small groups of robots revolt against their masters. Some governments turn the robots into soldiers and terrible wars are fought. Learning of these revolts, she begs Domin and the others to close the factory while there is still time. The men laugh at her fears. They have a gunboat standing by that will protect them from any rebels in the warehouses. Only Alquist agrees with Helena. He even prays that God will destroy the robots and let humanity return to work. He knows, as Helena does, that people stopped reproducing; there were no births recorded in the past week.
Dr. Gall, the physiologist, begins to fear the results when he learns that...
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some of the more intelligent robots, according to their different grades, begin to feel pain and to have heart flutters. They also begin to show definite signs of hating and of loving. The R.U.R. shareholders, however, are making too much money, and world governments are growing too powerful with robot soldiers to permit their discontinuation, even if Domin and the others accepted Helena and Alquist’s views. Feeling that the end is near, Dr. Gall warns Helena to look out for herself. The scientist believes they are all doomed.
The only weapon the managers can use against the robots, should they rebel, is the secret of their manufacture, the secret that promises to end a world organization of robots. As soon as the current trouble is over, each country will begin to manufacture its own robots. The differences in language and customs will prevent a world union in the future.
The trouble soon grows into a real danger. A mail boat arrives with leaflets announcing that the world organization orders all robots to kill every man, woman, and child in the world. The robots claim that humanity is now a parasite, that robots are now smarter than humanity and must rule the world. The orders are to be carried out immediately.
After a gallant fight the humans in the factory are overpowered. Even when he knows death is near, Domin has no regrets. He wanted to free humanity from the restrictions of an unfair social system, from poverty, from the slavery of working for another; something went wrong. Somehow the robots began to care about the things that people cared about. The mystery is solved when Helena confesses that she persuaded Dr. Gall to give the robots souls. She hoped that if the robots were more like human beings both groups could understand each other better. Now the robots are so human that they act like humans. This similarity includes killing.
The only hope is to persuade the robots that they dare not kill the men who know the secret of their manufacture. Domin prefers death rather than to give up his dream, but the others, hoping to use the formula in their bargaining, outvote him. Then they learn that Helena, hoping to put an end to the factory and to help children be born again, burned the formula.
All the humans are killed except Alquist, spared by the robots because he also works with his hands. Alquist, unable to duplicate the formula, cannot save the robots, who are dying by the millions. Before long they will be extinct. The irony is that Alquist needs human beings to study and experiment with in order to rediscover the formula, but there are no humans left.
One day Alquist decides that there is hope. Primus, a robot, and Helena, a robot made in Helena’s image, exhibit all the symptoms of love. At first Alquist plans to dissect them, to see what makes them feel human love. When he learns that they are willing to die for each other, but that they will not be parted, he knows that he needs search no longer for the secret of robot life. Their love will bring forth new life, and the world will know humanity once more.