The idea of humans creating beings with human capabilities has been explored for centuries (consider the Golem, Frankenstein’s “monster”, and even the Steam Man of the Prairies), but it was the 20th century Czech writer Karel Čapek (‘Cha-pek’) who gave us the word “ROBOT” … 101 years ago. His play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), first performed in 1921, imagines a world in which synthetic humanoid beings perform virtually all work previously done by humans. (The word robota in the Czech language means “forced labor”.) This change has a profound effect on the human race (the birth rate plunges as people struggle with a lack of purpose), and the robots themselves begin to perceive their own worth and rights as sentient beings. Eventually they lash out against their human oppressors in a violent rebellion. The play ends with a pair of robots discovering love, suggesting a return of compassion to the world.

The play was an international sensation. Within the year the play was translated into English, German, and French and was on stage in at least London and New York.  Critics hailed it as groundbreaking, and it opened up a discussion of robots and humanity that persists today. ROBOT101 is looking back at that 101-year discussion (and earlier) as a way to understand the present and future of robots.