Robot Uprising

In the aftermath of 2016 the world is coming to resemble a dystopia. Parallels with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are easy to come by, hence the book’s surge in sales over the past week. But aside from the more obvious rise of authoritarian governments there is a creeping apocalypse that has long been on the horizon: the rise of the robots. It first came to my attention in the morning email by New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush, who mentioned the ascent of Benoit Hamon as a presidential hopeful for the Socialist Party in France. Hamon’s campaign promise (as reported by Bush) is that the rise of robots will fundamentally change the world of work, necessitating a tax on robots and universal basic income.

The rise of robots is far from a new story. I first encountered it in the mid-1990s in the pages of Sonic the Comic. In an early storyline based heavily, I later realised, on the Terminator franchise, the Sonic-like robot Metallix travelled through time, changing history so that they ruled the planet Mobius without contest. But this storyline, those from which it was derived, and subsequent robot conquests such as The Matrix Trilogy are not quite the story that is playing out in the modern world. These stories posit that artificial intelligence will turn on its creators and overthrow humanity, either trying to wipe us out or using us as batteries. The robot uprising against which Hamon is fighting is the mechanization of the workforce. It is much more similar to the original robot story, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots.

The 1920 play is not subtle. It begins with universal robots in use all over the globe as they dramatically reduce the cost of production. The robots were created by the elder Rossum in defiance of God; they were commercialised by his nephew to make money, though some allies dreamed to “shatter the servitude of labour”. But the robots, guided by the newly designed Radius, rise up against their creators. With the robot uprising underway, their creators lament the fact that they did not create “National Robots”, in different colours and speaking different languages, who would not have been able to unionize. The robots, having defeated the human race, continue to work without orders – it is, after all, their purpose.

Many of R.U.R.’s themes remain prescient. International solidarity has always been the stumbling block of labour movements, exploited by capitalists stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. It lies behind the U.S. and Canada’s celebration of Labor Day in September instead of International Workers’ Day in May with the rest of the world. More immediately, the ‘freedom from servitude’ offered by robots necessitates the universal basic income proposed by Hamon. But workers in the modern world are not only forced to compete with robots that can produce things at half the cost. The increased surveillance made possible by other advancements in technology mean that human workers must operate like robots and limit their human interactions – eating, resting, talking – as outlined in this article by John Harris. Again, only solidarity between workers and unionization can challenge these demands.

In R.U.R., the robots are workers, unionized, international, and thus threatening to their overlords. In the modern world, workers are forced to become robots or to be replaced by them, with their every action controlled by their employers. Like many other stark and horrifying visions of the future science fiction has to offer, this one is coming true. To challenge it, we must be universal, not national, robots.


R.U.R: Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek

His sole purpose was nothing more nor less than to prove that God was no longer necessary.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play, which coined the word “robot” for all subsequent SF authors. I don’t usually enjoy reading plays that much, and I have to say that I probably would have enjoyed seeing this more than I enjoyed reading it. Which is not, of course, to say that I did not enjoy reading it. But plays are not there to be read, unless you’re an actor (or director etc.).

The Robots are very different to what robots would become, although the cover of the Gollancz Masterworks version by Arthur Haas seems to have taken its inspiration from the Will Smith adaptation of Čapek-derider Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. Was that sentence too long? Is it too late to add an idle reference to the wonderful title of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that is “I, Robot . . . You, Jane”? Anyway. The Robots themselves are very different, organic rather than mechanical, but the themes of creator and created, of the soul, and of the relationship between class and mechanization were not new, nor would they end at this point. The story is said to have been described by Čapek himself as a modern version of the Jewish Golem legend (although a citation is needed on the wikipedia article), and Philip K. Dick is just one of the many later authors who would ask what ultimately will distinguish “artificial” life from biological.

“I don’t believe that rascal is a Robot at all any longer.”

“Doctor, has Radius a soul?”

“He’s got something nasty.”

The play’s importance is one thing, but what makes it any good? There is an interesting tension between the Robots and the men in charge of the factory; it is demonstrated that the Robots themselves have no concerns about the work they do, about their enslavement, despite the protest groups from those who have not encountered robots. Even as they overthrow their human masters the Robots continue to work – more efficiently, but without purpose – there will be no-one to benefit from their work. But work is what they do. I haven’t seen the film, but this prefigures in some ways what I understand about George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, where the zombies follow their former lives, wandering about the mall with no direction or intent. But I digress. The Robots have no purpose beyond work, but they are still threatening. It has been necessary to rid workers of their desires beyond work. But as soon as they are changed, they are a threat. And why would the Robots keep humans around, as soon as they realized that they did not need them?

You are not as strong as the Robots. You are not as skillful as the Robots. The Robots can do anything. You only give orders. You do nothing but talk.

My assumption is that Čapek was writing from the Left, although in post-Second World War Communist Czechoslovakia his work was said to be too bourgeois. His later work, in the 1930s before his premature death in 1938, was thoroughly anti-Nazi; if R.U.R. is anti-Nazi it is especially prescient as it was first performed in 1920. The presentation of the factory owners is clearly critical, despite Domin’s desire for a (human) utopia without work:

It was not an evil dream to shatter the servitude of labour – the dreadful and humiliating labour that men had to undergo. Work was too hard. Life was too hard. And to overcome that –

His dream can of course be criticised on a number of accounts – freedom from labour is not necessarily freedom from work; many who perform labour would not find it “dreadful” and “humiliating”, but he as a man who (presumably) has never worked in his life assumes that it must be so. He identifies the mistake as being the Universal nature of the Robots – split the Robots up, create National Robots, and they will not rise up. Divide and conquer, as was done with human labour across the glob, unable to organize itself through the communication barriers. But he is cut off in his explanation of his dream (above):

Was not what the two Rossums dreamed of. Old Rossum only thought of his God-less tricks and the young one of his millards. And that’s not what your R.U.R. shareholders dream of either. They dream of dividends, and their dividends are the ruin of mankind.

But the Robots are not beyond criticism. Radius wishes to rule over men – his end is not equality, it is dominance. They will continue to work – nothing but work – until the end. Radius is one of few individual Robots, one of few who fears for his life and has the sickness of a soul; the rest are a mass, identical, as far as having the same face. But they are an angry mass. They have the numbers – when they are armed and unified they become unstoppable. Whether this was intended as an approving Left-wing message or as a dire warning for the bourgeoisie, the message is clear – if those we oppress, the workers, unite against us, they are the many, we are the few – they will win.

The question of mechanization, of workers replaced by efficient “machines”, has always been and remains strong. Were the Luddites whose names have become synonymous with anti-technology wrong to oppose mechanization which increased production but potentially put people out of work? The Robots represent both these workers and their replacements, but these replacements are intelligent, and alive. And that makes them a threat.