Prove You’re Not a Robot: On Karel Čapek’s “R.U.R.”

By Jonathan BoltonFebruary 20, 2024

Prove You’re Not a Robot: On Karel Čapek’s “R.U.R.”

R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life by Karel Čapek and Jitka Čejková

WHEN I WAS a child, I registered that the scariness of dolls and puppets was in direct proportion to their likelihood of coming to life. But what was this mysterious quality, “likelihood of coming to life”? I knew it when I saw it: my stuffed Babe Ruth doll did not seem dangerous, but those forearm-sized plastic dolls with rotating heads and moving eyelids were definitely frightening. As I grew older, the question grew less urgent. Perhaps, as adults, we lose the ability to identify which dolls are more susceptible to waking up than others (although as late as my senior year of college, I remember a friend of mine recoiling from a marionette: “You know that’ll come alive at the drop of a hat.”) Or maybe, with age, we simply come to terms with what has now become a building block of our popular culture: all dolls threaten to come to life. And when they do, it seems only natural that they might not be happy to see us already-alive humans wandering around.

Robots have not always been ubiquitous. In earlier times, the idea of an artificial person evoked the automaton, a mechanical figure jerkily moving its head or arms through concealed gears or pulleys. Automata were relatively rare, generally designed for entertainment and spectacle, and meant to enthrall, bamboozle, or intimidate. They usually stood alone, the center of attention in a fairground or museum, a bourgeois parlor or royal cabinet of wonders. Nevertheless, as happens in the stories of German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, sensitive observers of these automata routinely found their sense of reality destabilized. In The Secret Agent, published in 1907, Joseph Conrad captures this uncanny ambiguity in his description of the double agent Adolf Verloc: “Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face had been painted red. And this resemblance to a mechanical figure went so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the machinery inside him.” The shady Verloc does indeed lack a certain humanizing empathy, but what makes him most like a mechanical figure is not his wooden movements or stony gaze, but rather his air of self-awareness. If an automaton is aware of its own internal machinery, does that mean it is aware that it is not alive? Or is its self-awareness the first sign of life? (And is the awareness of its own absurdity, perhaps, the second?) In Conrad’s novel, this simile not only captures the moral vacancy of the political revolutionary but also raises a wealth of questions about mechanical figures and our own irresistible desire to use them as metaphors—even as metaphors for people.

When the word “robot” made its debut, 13 years after Conrad’s novel, it captured the anxiety swirling around the automaton—the fear that humanlike machines will cross the boundary to become machinelike humans—while adding a few additional turns of the screw. The world’s first “robots” appeared in a play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920 and first performed in 1921. The play has just been republished in a new translation by Štěpán S. Šimek within the volume R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life, along with a collection of meditations inspired by Čapek’s play. The volume is the brainchild of Czech chemical engineer Jitka Čejková, who originally edited Robot 100: Sto rozumů (2020), a collection of 100 essays marking the hundredth anniversary of the play. For the English version of this book, Čejková selected 20 of these essays, written primarily by scientists across a range of interdisciplinary fields in biology, chemistry, engineering, and robotics. Each essay in the new edition is prefaced by an illustration from the 49th International Children’s Exhibition of Fine Arts in Lidice, Czech Republic, a set of terrific drawings by children aged five to 15, all on the theme of robots and artificial intelligence; they remind us of the close ties between scientific discovery and a child’s innocence, fantasies, and fears. Although the individual essays are somewhat scattershot and don’t quite cohere into a whole that would be larger than the sum of its parts, they are full of surprising insights and together constitute a fascinating experiment in how scientists might cast new light on a literary classic. In the process, they confirm the prescience of the radical questions Čapek raised a hundred years ago.


R.U.R. imagines a remote island where an industrial concern called Rossum’s Universal Robots, run by the company’s chief executive officer, Harry Domin, and a governing board of scientists and engineers, churns out artificial workers and ships them all over the world. As the play opens, Domin sits at his “American-style” desk, confirming orders—5,000 robots to New York, 15,000 to Hamburg, with 347,000 stored in the warehouse. They may look like humans, and they have excellent memories and technical intelligence, but these robots are solely designed to perform specific tasks. They feel no pain, have no taste or emotions, and are—at least according to Hallemeier, the director of the Office of Psychology and Education—“without free will, without passion, without history, without a soul.” Once in a while, a specimen suffers a “Robotic spasm,” during which it “just stands there gnashing its teeth,” but this is “probably some organic malfunction.” It is a simple matter to send the broken machine “into the crusher” for recycling.

What could go wrong? Spoiler alert! (If you really don’t see where this is headed, you might want to skip to the end of this paragraph—or go read the play and come back in an hour.) Liberated from labor, humans become lazy and unable to rouse themselves to work. For unknown reasons, but somehow appropriately, they stop having children. Meanwhile, the R.U.R. stockholders clamor for more robot production, and wars proliferate as governments begin to create robot armies. Eventually, the robots organize, issuing a “Robots of the world!” manifesto that declares humans “our enemy and an outlaw in the universe.” Offstage, they slaughter all humans; onstage, they come to the island and kill off the governing board of R.U.R., except for the least objectionable of the lot, Alquist, director of the factory’s physical plant, who has always had a healthy respect for manual labor. But the robots are doomed: just before she is killed, Domin’s wife, Helena, horrified by the ill treatment of robots, has burned the last remaining copy of the formula for making them. In the play’s final act, the robots realize that, although they rule the world, they cannot reproduce themselves and will be extinguished when they wear out in 20 years or so. Hope of a sort is provided by what one otherwise unreliable reviewer called “a couple of very tasty young robots” who appear in the final scenes and exhibit some markedly human attributes—they laugh, dream, get bored, don’t want to work, and are willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. Ultimately, they are well on their way to falling in love. In a final monologue full of twisted ironies, Alquist sends them off into the world, as God sent Adam and Eve into paradise, “to have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

This summary doesn’t do justice to the play, especially since the basic plot devices have now been used so often that it is hard to go back to an era when they weren’t stock-in-trade. Even so, the real force of Čapek’s imagination comes through not in this apocalyptic scenario but rather in the creation of the robots themselves, and in the philosophical questions he poses about and around them.


It has become commonplace to say that the word “robot” derives from the Czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labor,” and that it passed into English (and the rest of the world’s languages) via Čapek’s play. It’s worth taking a deeper dive: the word’s original appearance is not in Czech but in the English-language subtitle of the play, Rossum’s Universal Robots. It is almost as if Čapek coined the English word before he coined the Czech one. Thus, to a Czech reader in 1920, “robot” would already have had a certain foreign (English or American) feel; in the play itself, it is emphatically a foreign borrowing, almost as if we were reading a Czech translation of an English original. But the word becomes familiar over the course of the play, just as it did in almost every other language. (The same can’t be said of the feminine form “robotka,” which is also used in the play, or, for that matter, “robotess,” as it was translated in the first English version from 1922.)

In his brief essay “O slově Robot” (“About the word Robot,” 1933), Čapek gave credit for the word to his brother and close collaborator Josef, who was also a writer as well as a painter and graphic artist. Karel Čapek tells the following story, as translated by Norma Comrada in her essay “Golem and Robot: A Search for Connections”: when the idea for the play came to the author “in a single, unguarded moment,” he rushed to tell his brother, who was just then “standing before an easel and painting away at a canvas till it rustled.” Čapek summarized his idea and then continued:

I don’t know what to call these artificial workers. I could call them Labori, but that strikes me as a bit bookish.

“Then call them Robots,” the painter muttered, brush in mouth, and went on painting. And that’s how it was. Thus was the word Robot born; let this acknowledge its true creator.

But where did Čapek’s brother come up with the word? It’s impossible to say. Although many etymological dictionaries say it comes from the Czech word “robota,” that isn’t supported by the above story. What seems more likely is that Josef Čapek was redirecting Karel from the “bookish” Latin word labor to a more Slavic root. (In Czech and other Slavic languages, various words for “work” share the roots rab- and rob-, and Old Church Slavonic had the word “рабъ,” meaning servant or slave.)

Whatever Josef Čapek was thinking, “robot” does have an obvious cousin in the Czech “robota,” a word that goes back to at least the Middle Ages. According to Josef Jungmann’s Czech-German Dictionary (1835–39), “robota” had a wide range of meanings: work in general, particularly hard or unpleasant work, work done badly (because done under duress), or even servitude or serfdom. One of its meanings was the set amount of labor (for example, a certain number of days of work per year) owed by serfs to their lords; an older English term, “robot” or “the robot,” first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1839, referred specifically to this system of serf labor, which the Austrian Empire abolished after the Revolutions of 1848. (In this usage, notably, the word implies that the workers in question also have periods when they can work for their own enrichment.) In a sense then, “robota” can mean “forced labor,” although in 1920 that term didn’t have all the connotations it would acquire over the course of the 20th century, in particular under Stalin and Hitler, and in the prisoner-of-war and labor camps of World War II. The word “robota” is more evocative of serfdom and backbreaking agricultural work—although by the 20th century it could just as well mean the drudgery of an office job.

Nevertheless, Karel Čapek seems to have been alive to other possible connotations of the word “robota.” In May 1920, six months before R.U.R. was published, he had used the word in a review of Jindřich Fleischner’s Chrám práce (“The Cathedral of Work”), a book that extolled creative labor as one of the things that makes us human, and which seems to have left many traces on R.U.R. Summarizing Fleischner’s argument and borrowing Fleischner’s own use of the word “robota,” Čapek describes how the ruler of a community forces others to work for the good of the whole, through “subjugation, slavery, robota.” He then relates how technology comes to liberate humans from work: “[M]achines are slaves, slaves of iron, sustained by coal and oil, which have rendered black and white slaves unnecessary and technically unfeasible.” The association of machines with slavery and unfree labor was clearly on Čapek’s mind at the time he was writing R.U.R.

Čapek’s robots, however, were neither made of iron nor sustained by coal and oil. They were organic. This is one of the great innovations of R.U.R. as well as one of the entry points for Čejková’s new volume. Her own research, like that of many of the book’s contributors in her field of artificial life, or “ALife,” asks what life is and whether it can be created in the chemical laboratory. She writes of “droplets of decanol in the environment of sodium decanoate” as “liquid robots” that can chase after food, evade poisons, and “even find their way out of a maze.” In a fascinating essay that ranges from Marx to Elizabeth Bishop, Julyan Cartwright discusses the discovery of “chemical gardens” by the alchemist Johann Glauber in 1646: when a metal salt is put into certain solutions, it begins to grow “in the form of plants and trees, each metal according to its inmost colour and property, which metalline vegetations are called philosophical trees, both pleasant to the eye and of good use.” The resulting structures would eventually be investigated in terms of the self-organization of complex systems, perhaps on their way to becoming a higher life-form. (This calls to mind another of my less pleasant childhood memories, the creepy pictures on the boxes of “sea-monkeys” that were a popular novelty in the 1970s and were originally, I now discover on Wikipedia, marketed as “Instant Life.”)

Čapek knew nothing of decanol droplets or sea gardens. Part of the fun or frustration of this volume, depending on your point of view, comes from seeing modern scientists riff off the play in ways its author could never have imagined—“digging into the science of R.U.R. and dreaming up backstories,” as Lana Sinapayen puts it in her excellent essay. But Čapek most certainly did imagine organic robots, as he clarified in a 1936 article reprinted at the end of the book: he “did not intend to furnish the world with plate metal dummies stuffed with cogwheels, photocells, and other mechanical gizmos.” Rather, he “was thinking about modern chemistry, which in various emulsions (or whatever they are called) has located substances and forms that in some ways behave like living matter.” His robots were made of “an organic substance, different from that from which living cells are made; it is something like another alternative to life, a material substrate in which life could have evolved if it had not, from the beginning, taken a different path.” The idea of finding a “material substrate” that might evolve into life resonates with many of the book’s contributors, who would firmly agree with Čapek when he says: “We do not have to suppose that all the different possibilities of creation have been exhausted on our planet.”

Čapek has some fun imagining the whole process, as when Domin offers to give his future wife Helena, a visitor to the island, a tour of the factory:

DOMIN: […] I’ll show you the vats in the afternoon.

HELENA: What vats?

DOMIN [businesslike]: The kneading vats for the batter. Each vat contains material for up to a thousand Robots. Then there are the containers for the liver, the brains, and so on. Later on, you’ll see the bone factory, and then I’ll take you to the spinning mill.

HELENA: Spinning mill?

DOMIN: Yes, a nerve spinning mill, the artery and capillary spinning mill, a mill where we spin hundreds of miles of intestines, and so on. Then there is the assembly line […] That part is the most interesting one to watch. And finally comes the drying room and the storage room where the new products are put to work.

Domin’s casual conflation of organic and raw material helps me understand why I have always found the word “wetware” so unsettling. It also nicely captures his nonchalant will to power. His name says it all: domain, dominion, dominate. Domin speaks unabashedly of creating an “Übermensch, a supreme human being! […] I wanted us to make the whole of humanity into the aristocracy of the world. An aristocracy supported by billions of mechanical serfs. Into boundless, free, and supreme people.” The joke is on him: he does create supreme beings, of a sort—they just aren’t humans.


What do the robots look like, and how do they act? In the play’s opening prologue, an uninitiated visitor to the island, Helena, mistakes robots for humans and humans for robots, suggesting that Čapek did not want to draw the line between them too sharply. Nevertheless, the play does give clues to the robots’ demeanor in a crucial stage direction at the beginning: “The ROBOTS are dressed just like real humans in the Prologue. Their movements and inflections are choppy [úseční], their faces are expressionless, and they stare emotionlessly.” We can hear echoes of the automaton—remember Conrad’s “wooden” and “stony-eyed” Verloc. But the key word here is probably “úseční”—abrupt, brusque, brisk, or even measured and regular. I might argue that Šimek’s “choppy” pushes the robots too far in the direction of obvious mechanical awkwardness when the effect could be more of an off-putting directness. A slightly more literal translation might be: “The robots in the prologue are dressed like people. They are brusque [abrupt, precise, regular] in their movements and pronunciation, with expressionless faces and a fixed gaze.” This stage direction could, of course, be executed in myriad ways, and it’s worth asking how much our imagination of robot behavior and robot speech has been shaped by the collective performances of R.U.R. across dozens of countries in the 1920s. Indeed, as Jana Horáková points out in her insightful contribution, for theatergoers around the world, the first robots were, in fact, people pretending to be robots.

For the following three acts of the play, however, the stage directions change. Čapek has the robots wear a particular uniform—linen blouses belted at the waist with “a large brass number attached to their chests.” In other words, after the prologue, the robots are clearly marked as such by their outfits. This gives directors and actors more leeway in how to play them. This is especially important because, as the play progresses, we meet several robots who aspire to be human: the revolutionary leaders Radius and Damon, and the “tasty couple” Primus and the robotess Helena, named after Domin’s wife. It is not clear how much of their behavior is a natural evolutionary leap and how much is the result of Gall’s experiments in “upgrading” a few hundred select robots (endowing them, among other things, with irritability). The play, which began as a meditation on the importance of human work and the ethics of forced labor, modulates steadily toward a new set of questions: How did the robots “come alive”? Why did some robots develop emotions, consciousness, and a soul? How close are they to being human? And how, if at all, will the new robots be different from their human predecessors?

Čapek is careful not to answer these questions but rather to orchestrate a dialogue featuring different interpretations, mixed with tantalizing comments and phrases that gesture at whole philosophical subfields—as when Fabry preaches to Helena that, “[f]rom a technical point of view, the whole idea of childhood […] is completely absurd,” or that giving robots a soul is “not in our interest”; or when Gall tells Helena that “[w]e need to introduce suffering” as an accident-prevention measure; or when Domin says that “a working machine doesn’t need to play the violin,” and that “a creation designed by an engineer will always be technically more refined than a creation of nature.” Many of the essays do a wonderful job of seizing on these moments and “dreaming up backstories.” In his fascinating contribution, Tom Froese meditates on the mind-body relationship and discusses how freedom (our own independence from a material substrate) can be felt as alienating: “When we speak or think, the appropriate mental contents normally arise spontaneously into our awareness and organize themselves around our intentions in a way that is outside of our direct control.” It is thus not surprising when the robots in Act III, having spoken of becoming “souls,” say: “We seem to be wrestling with something. There are moments when something enters into us, and then we struggle with thoughts that are not from us.”

For me, passages such as these—building on details from the play but moving off in entirely new directions—best fulfill the promise of this volume, as well as highlighting the potential of Čapek’s perspectival method, in which different characters try to explain the world but no one is ever given a privileged position for doing so.


For all their insights, the 20 essays collected in Čejková’s volume have blind spots. I wish they had done a better job of canvassing the existing scholarship on R.U.R., much of which covers similar ground, often with a more careful approach to the language of the play itself. Sometimes the essays reduce the play’s complexities to a single explanation or plotline, and only one contributor mentions Damon, the key leader of the robot revolt. Damon, whose name mirrors that of his human counterpart Domin, pushes Alquist to dissect him in an offstage but still horrifying scene, in which he sacrifices himself in hopes that the secret of robot life will be discovered. As Kamila Kinyon showed in her classic 1999 essay from Science Fiction Studies, “The Phenomenology of Robots: Confrontations with Death in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.—still one of the best meditations on the play—the two rebellious robots, Radius and Damon, embody different philosophical traditions in their approach to death and self-sacrifice, and Čapek tracks their evolving awareness of selfhood with exquisite detail in the word choice and syntax of their dialogue.

Another point that could do with more explanation is the need for a new English translation. It is true that Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair’s initial translations of R.U.R. (in 1922–23) made drastic and unacceptable changes, leaving out whole characters (including Damon) and primly avoiding references to sex and violence. But there is no need to use this version (although some of the essays do). Claudia Novack-Jones’s newer translation from 1990, first published in Catbird Press’s outstanding anthology Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader, and still readily available in a Penguin edition, is an excellent version, readable and, despite a minor error or two, accurate. It should at least have been mentioned.

The strangest absence in the essays is any discussion of one of the play’s most salient themes: the hubris of those who would try to create artificial life in the laboratory. It’s an odd omission. The overweening pride of R.U.R.’s roboteers is abundantly represented in the successive owners of Rossum’s firm: old Rossum himself, a mad scientist, “wanted to scientifically dethrone God” by making “an exact replica of a human being”; his nephew, the efficient engineer referred to as young Rossum, “actually did want to play God” by improving on the original design; and Domin sees himself as returning humans “to Paradise,” where they “were nourished by the hand of God!” In Čapek’s world, this kind of hubris is not a good thing. Some of the essays in R.U.R. and the Vision of Artificial Life do acknowledge the threat—science writer George Musser, commenting on the number of microchips in our cars and appliances, suggests that “[w]e may want to reconsider whether we really want to be the minority species in our own homes”—but overall, the contributors seem reluctant to talk about the need for humility with respect to creating “artificial life.”

Indeed, for many contributors, this is no longer a relevant question. Robots are here to stay, and the most pressing ethical questions have to do with how we treat them, not with whether we should have made them in the first place. In 1950, Alan Turing predicted that by the end of the century, we would be comfortable saying that machines think. Inman Harvey, in his contribution, extends the insight to suggest that in another 50 years, we will speak matter-of-factly of robots feeling pain—or irritation. And what follows from that? Antoine Pasquali replies:

As robots will become smarter and stronger, we will be forced to consider: should we enslave them and remind them every day that they must serve their almighty creators, or should we try to raise them as our own children so that they can share our culture, cooperate with us, and perhaps show us a better way to preserve mankind?

It feels like a pretty deep question to ask whether those robot children will be creeped out by their own dolls and marionettes.

Perhaps scientists, doing their day-to-day work in their labs, are weary of answering paranoid questions from critics who have grown up on a diet of zombie movies and robot rebellions. But it still makes sense to ask about the ethics of creating life—and, as Čapek urges us, to consider the inevitable bargains made between science and industrial capitalism in the process. In fact, R.U.R.’s portraits of scientists and engineers are hardly flattering. If the play seems dark, it is partly because none of the characters—human or robot—is up to the moral and ethical demands of the awe-inspiring questions raised by the creation of new life. But these are the central questions of R.U.R. One of Čapek’s main intuitions seems to be that when the world does implode, there will be a host of scientists observing the process with fascination, and a host of entrepreneurs busily making money off the end times. “Every industrialist in the world keeps ordering Robots as if there was no tomorrow,” says Gall, when indeed there is no tomorrow. “There’s nothing you can do about it.” In our age of ChatGPT—surely the age of “there’s nothing you can do about it”—we may return to Čapek for his prescient sense of how market logic underwrites scientific certainty, and vice versa. Is there a reason he would be prescient about so many other things, and not about this?

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Bolton is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard University, where he teaches Czech and Central European literature, history, and culture. He is the author of Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, the Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture Under Communism (2012). His translations of Czech poetry and prose have appeared in CircumferenceB O D YBest European FictionModern Poetry in Translation, and elsewhere; he has edited and translated book-length collections by Ivan Wernisch (In the Puppet Gardens: Selected Poems, 1963–2005, 2007) and Petr Hruška (Everything Indicates: Selected Poems, 2023).


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