Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
Karel apek expressed his fascination with the future of the human race in several works, notably in the novels The Absolute at Large (1922; English translation, 1927) and Krakatit (1924), and in the plays R.U.R. and The Insect Play (1923), to mention only a few. He used these futuristic works to examine the possible outcome of various human endeavors but also to warn against miscalculations and evil actions. R.U.R. (subtitled Rossum’s Universal Robots) is perhaps the most exemplary of such works. In addition to its literary value, it introduced the word “robot” (from the Czech robotit, meaning “to drudge”) into the English language.
When apek wrote R.U.R., he had no way of knowing how artificial intelligence or robotics would develop several decades later. In his time, the science of robotics was practically unknown, giving his clairvoyance an added dimension.
For the most part, apek’s vision was in accord with his later works. His Robots are not attached to life and know of no enjoyment; they have no appetite, no bodily pain, no interest in anything, no will of their own, and no passion. They are not creative and never think of anything new. Their sole purpose is to work, and they do not know when to stop. They are not afraid of death because it means nothing to them—they only cease to move. They have no capacity for love or sex, not even among themselves. Most important, they have no true souls, and that differentiates them from humans more than anything else. The most telling reason for their existence is that they are cheap to produce and maintain; one Robot replaces two and a half human workers.
apek was not interested solely in the future of artificial intelligence. As in all of his works, he was concerned with philosophical and moral meanings of human action. He blames the problems brought on by the Robots at the end of the play on several factors: theoretical scientists who recklessly pursue their dreams or simple curiosity, practical scientists who work only for their enrichment, shareholders interested only in profits, politicians who use Robots as inexpensive and obedient soldiers, and almost every person on Earth for wanting to own Robots. Through the actions of Helena and Alquist, apek shows that at least some individuals are aware of the potential dangers of reckless and selfish action. Even such technocrats as Domain are given credit for noble intentions. He says, “It was not an evil dream to shatter the servitude of labor. . . . I wanted man to become the master . . . to turn the whole of mankind into the aristocracy of the world . . . unrestricted, free, and perfect men.” What went wrong was that the Robots had no souls and were incapable of love; instead, they learned to hate. Only love, such as that between Primus and the Robot Helena, and not greed and hatred, leads to salvation and survival. This is the cogent humanist message of R.U.R.