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Worlds Without End Blog

Automata 101: Robots and the Mechanical Age Posted at 1:02 PM by Rhonda Knight


Rhonda Knight is an Associate Professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, SC. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance literature as well as composition courses. This blog will outline her experiences teaching an Honors English Composition course about created entities, beginning with the golem of Jewish legend and continuing through cyborgs, robots, androids, and artificial intelligence.

R.U.R.This section focuses on two texts and a film: Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories and essays Robot Visions. I chose the latter instead of the more popular I, Robot for two reasons. First, the number of stories plus their mixture with essays gave me a great choice of texts. The essays provided the students with some background and analytical exploration of robots. The second reason is the collection contained the novelette The Bicentennial Man, which I wanted to teach to provide a longer example of Asimov’s work. The students were excited to get to robots, the shiny humanoid forms, after the automata of the previous section.

We began with Capek’s play, which gave the world the word “robot,” which is the Czech word for “serf.” Capek’s dystopic play, performed and published in 1921, is very concerned with the rights of the worker. It appeared in a time and a place where communism, socialism and capitalism were beginning to clash. The play enjoyed international success, debuting on Broadway in 1922 and in the West End in 1923. By the time it was performed in London, the play had been translated into thirty languages and performed in many other cities.

R.U.R. on StageWhile the students’ expectations of CP3O-like robots were not exactly met, they were not disappointed. They learned that these “original” robots of R.U.R. were not mechanical at all but were instead organic in composition. However, this fact does not matter too much because the mechanical mode of production Capek describes puts one in mind of Henry Ford’s assembly line with robots working to produce more robots ad nauseum. We talked a lot about Capek’s world and why a world freed from work might be appealing, especially when many workers of the time felt as if they were dehumanized and only a part of the machinery of capitalism.

I structured the class so that the students read the Prologue and Act 1 for a Monday, on Wednesday we watched excerpts of Metropolis in class, and then we finished the play on Friday. Showing them Metropolis really helped them visualize how Capek thought about labor. The class is only 50 minutes, so I had to choose sections of the movie carefully. We focused on the first few minutes that juxtapose the workers at shift change with the rich boy Freder in the Eternal Gardens. The second section we watched was the explosion of the M-Machine in the factory, and finally we watched Maria’s transformation into the “machine-man.” Some of these moments are in this restoration trailer. (The students did finally get their shiny robot.)

MetropolisWe concluded our discussion of R.U.R., focusing on the character of Helena, who through her desire to be a do-gooder, dooms mankind to extinction. Many of them noticed that Helena represented the upper class who wanted to improve the world but did not know the price of a loaf of bread. She has the charm of her namesake, Helen of Troy, and uses it to convince Dr. Gall to give the robots souls. This change created a new race of robots, who suddenly cared that they were working for beings who were weaker and dumber than they were. This caused the worldwide revolt and slaughter of all of humanity, except for one man who could build any more robots because Helena had destroyed the formula as a last-ditch effort to remedy her mistakes.

love birdsThe ending of the play is ambiguous but points toward a super-evolved robot couple, Primus and Helena (named after the character), repopulating the earth the old-fashioned way. The Robot Helena is a commentary on her namesake. Dr. Gall remarks: “She is as lovely and foolish as the spring. Simply good for nothing.” Unlike the sterile human Helena, she developed the ability to procreate and with Primus (whose name means “first”) becomes, the new Adam and Eve.

We noticed that Capek, like Mary Shelley, was not interested in the science of robot creation; Isaac Asimov, however, adds the concept of the positron brain and his three laws to bring in some science. I tried to choose stories that demonstrated Asimov’s exploration of his robots’ humanity, such as “Robbie,” “Evidence,” and “Robot Vision.” (Personally, I prefer the puzzle stories that demonstrate robots acting strangely because the laws are in conflict or a human gives a confusing order, such as “Runaround” or “Little Lost Robot.”) Robot VisionsWe also read essays in which Asimov explored why humanity would make robots in a human shape (“The Friends We Make”) and what mankind would do if robots replaced it as workers (“Whatever You Wish”). The second one provided an interesting counterpoint to R.U.R.

The students wrote papers that connected the ideas emerging in this section back to earlier ones. Some explored two reasons that humans fear robots in Asimov’s stories and Capek’s play. Others tried to define Asimov’s term “Frankenstein Complex,” which he never really defines, and to investigate its implications. I asked them to argue if Asimov’s use of the term seems to perpetuate or combat the Frankenstein Complex. Only one student chose the creative option to write a dialog between Capek and Asimov discussing robots, humans and work. All of these themes will transition us nicely to the next section which contains Marge Piercy’s He, She and It and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


Dave Post   |   07 Oct 2011 @ 09:01

As much as I love robots I’m surprised at how few of these course texts I’ve read. I’ve had R.U.R. on my list forever but never got around to it. That’s one of the problems of working on a site like this – constantly finding great books that push other great books down the list. You’ve convinced me to move it to the top of the stack. I’ve ordered Metropolis too, which I’ve not seen in it’s entirety. I’m looking forward to seeing the new re-mastered version. Great stuff, Rhonda! I envy your students.

Rhonda Knight   |   07 Oct 2011 @ 16:38

The funny thing about RUR is: when I read it this summer (for the first time), I thought it was too preachy in tone, but decided it would still be a good text for the students. When I re-read it with the class, I did not find it as preachy. Now, the text is not very nuanced because it about ISSUES; however, I think that the text holds up better than the play as a piece of drama ever could.

Emil   |   08 Oct 2011 @ 04:14

I read RUR very recently. Initially I also thought it was preachy in tone. Perhaps that’s due to the disadvantages of translation, or merely because it’s actually a play. Nonetheless, the text does address relevant issues, and asks very important yet uncomfortable questions about humanity and technology. Helena’s character is of interest. I could not help but wonder if Kapek expresses through her a subliminal warning regarding "do-gooderie." I’ve recently read Tony Ballentyne’s "Twisted Metal" and "Bood and Iron" – one of the main robotic characters is called Karel (clearly in reference to Kapek). Ballentyne created a world of "sapient" robots, arguably an extension of Kapek’s final passages in RUR. A third book is in the making, but (sadly) humans are not extinct 🙂 Nonetheless, a very interesting read, following on from the themes postulated in RUR. Humans are pretty much the author of their own destruction.

Mattastrophic   |   10 Oct 2011 @ 23:03

@Rhonda: I agree that Asimov’s "puzzle stories" were the most interesting in his robot cycle. It really showed the nuance of potential interactions between his three laws. As a writing teacher I’m curious to hear what, if anything, you’ve got planned for the culminating writing project of this semester. Having them reflect in writing on connections between what they’ve done/read earlier in the semester and what they’re reading now sounds like a good plan for a themed course.

Rhonda Knight   |   12 Oct 2011 @ 05:57

@Emil, Thanks for your comment. You are correct, medium, translation and, I think, time period all contribute to the tone of R. U. R. I’m glad I taught it. It was a good intro to Asimov and it fit with Metropolis so well.

Rhonda Knight   |   12 Oct 2011 @ 06:03

@Mattastrophic. Right now, the students will turn one of the papers they’ve already written into a much longer, research paper. I’m hoping that some of the connection occur within this process. Beyond that, there will be a synthesis type question on the final exam. However, you are making me think that an in-class assignment might not be a bad "refresher" when we return from break next week.

Mattastrophic   |   12 Oct 2011 @ 08:38

@Rhonda: Students can always use a little kick start to get the mind in gear again after break. We’re just coming out of our fall break and I’m on my way to teach in a few minutes, so we’ll see how they do! When I mentioned that reflection on course connections in my previous post I was referring to the papers you indicated your students were doing in your blog post above. I hope I didn’t come across as pushing anything.

Rhonda Knight   |   12 Oct 2011 @ 11:57

@Mattastrophic. No, you didn’t. The writing part has been the hardest. Most of them are first semester freshmen so they are struggling with the idea of process. The ideas have been the best part. They are very good in discussion but not as good sustaining those ideas in a paper.@Emil I forgot to thank you for the book recommendations. Actually, I did remember the first time I posted, but my addiction to dashes in writing 404’d the post. So a belated thank you.

Mattastrophic   |   28 Oct 2011 @ 11:46

@Rhonda: I recently finished The Quantum Thief by Hannuu Rajaniemi, and on his version of Mars people use time as currency, and when your time runs out your consciouisness is transferred out of your body and into one of the city’s many automata and machines that keep the city running. You have to serve your time as one of these machines, called "The Quiet," before you can be reborn into a human body, to give people an appreciation for mortality in a culture where immortality is common. Thought you might find that interesting, the looming reality that "death" means being reborn as a robot.

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