The first television science fiction program ever broadcast was produced by the BBC on this day in 1938. The program was a thirty-five-minute adaptation of part of the 1920 play R.U.R., also known as Rossum’s Universal Robots, by the Czech author Karel Čapek. It was Čapek (or his brother) who coined the term robot to describe the manmade humanoids in the play, from an old Slavic word meaning “work” or “servitude.”
The artificial beings in the play are not really robots in our contemporary sense of mechanical devices that can perform human tasks. They are made of a synthetic protoplasm.
The idea of mechanical servants goes back much further than 1920. There’s a reference in Homer’s Iliad to female servants made of gold who assist Hephaestus, the god of metalwork: “Handmaids ran to attend their master, all cast in gold but a match for living, breathing girls. Intelligence filled their hearts, voice and strength their frames, from the deathless gods they’ve learned their work of hand.” (Book 18, translation by Robert Fagles).
These days we have robots that vacuum our floors and work as bomb disposal devices. We have artificial intelligences that can beat us at chess. There’s a Murasaki storytelling robot in Japan (the country which has the most robots in the world). The Murasaki is actually just a device that simulates the actions of someone telling a story, while the story itself comes from an MP3 player hidden inside it.
I wrote the story “Machine vs Snot-Monster” after pondering the thought of an artificial intelligence that could really tell stories. It seems to me (though I’m certainly no expert on AI) that a machine could really be called intelligent only when it developed to the stage where it wanted to tell stories, or needed to. When robots reach this stage, and are able to look back at the stories that human beings have been telling about them (since the Iliad or even longer), one has to wonder what kinds of stories they’ll tell about us.