Commemorating the 90th anniversary of the coining of the word "robot"...


Did you know the word "robot" was first introduced in a play?, 1/25/07

In 1921, a new play premiered at the National Theater in Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia.  RUR (which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek, marks the first use of the word "robot" to describe an artificial person. ("Robot" entered the English language in 1923.)  The robots in Capek's play are not mechanical men made of metal; instead they are molded out of a chemical batter and they look exactly like humans. Each robot costs the equivalent of $150 and "can do the work of two-and-a-half human laborers," so that humans might be free to have "no other task, no other work, no other cares" than perfecting themselves.  However, the robots come to realize that even though they have "no passion, no history, no soul," they are stronger and smarter than humans. They kill every human but one.  The play explores themes that would later become staples of robot science fiction, including freedom, love and destruction. Although many of Capek's other works were more famous during his lifetime, today he is best known for RUR.

Clarification: Contrary to popular opinion, Karel Capek, the author of RUR is not the inventor of the word robot. The word, which is derived from the Czech noun "robota" meaning "labor", is an accomplishment of Capek's older brother, the cubist painter and writer Josef Capek.


A thoroughly modern opera, as robots enter a new frontier

The Christian Science Monitor, 3/4/11

How can we use technology to tell a story about how humans relate to their technology?  [A new opera] "Death and the Powers," which has its North American première March 18 in Boston, fills the stage with nine semi-autonomous "opera bots," as well as huge moving, flashing walls and a chandelier whose strings both seem to speak and respond to touches from a human performer.  But all this technology, some of the most sophisticated to be found on any theatrical stage, is in the service of telling a very human story. The opera's plot centers on a computer genius, Simon Powers, who has had enough of life in a fleshly form and has decided to download his "self" into "The System," living on in a purely digital form.  The opera, more than a decade in the making, was composed by Tod Machover, who heads the Opera of the Future lab at MIT. As Simon, American baritone James Maddalena leaves the stage for a soundproof booth located in the orchestra pit. There he is fitted with sensors that allow him to give what Machover calls a "disembodied" performance.  . Maddalena's singing voice, arm movements, arm muscle tension, and breathing rate are captured. This information helps control the onstage movements and lights of three walls, each weighing three tons, that display flashing light patterns, as well as a huge chandelier, all of which are now inhabited by the "essence" of Simon. The stage itself "comes alive" as a character, says Machover [who] combines a live orchestra of 15 human musicians with musical sounds made electronically. 


The unexpected dance career of an industrial robot

The New Scientist, 2/8/11

A career change is always daunting, but for an industrial robot from the 1970s that spent a decade welding and assembling cars, moving into stage performance is likely to be more difficult than for most. Thanks to Aurelien Bory, artistic director of Compagnie 111, one robot has now made the transition relatively smoothly and stars in his latest production Sans Objet, presented as part of the London International Mime Festival. There is a human element to the performance: two acrobats interact with the robot on stage, while an operator lurking behind the scenes controls it.   The piece is a power struggle between man and machine where boundaries between the two becoming blurred: at times, the robot becomes humanised and the people appear robotic. Most of the time, the robot seems to be in control, picking up the actors and moving around the scenery.  "The machine makes the space and human beings try to adapt themselves to these changes." The piece alludes to the close relationship we have with technology in modern society and the difficulty humans may have in finding their place. "Humans risk becoming not as good as a robot," says Bory. 


A singing, dancing, Shakespeare-reciting "RoboThespian" wows tech fair

Agence France-Presse, 3/2/11

A gleaming white robot that sings, dances, recites Shakespeare, mimics other famous robots and even tries to kiss passers-by drew huge crowds on Tuesday at the world's biggest high-tech fair.  Visitors to the CeBIT fair flocked to see the "RoboThespian" and its tricks, applauding loudly as the sleek machine gave a perfect performance of the famous "Hamlet" soliloquy, complete with over-the-top thespian actions and voices. Fluent in 20 languages - including Chinese - the robot can hold basic conversations, copy the actions of people in front of it and it wowed the crowd with its impersonation of C3PO, the world-famous robot from "Star Wars."  Marcus Hold, the engineer who designed "RoboThespian," said its main function was for entertainment and communication. For example, some robot museums have bought one so as to offer guided tours with a difference.  "There are 21 installed around the world," Hold told AFP. "But this is his first CeBIT and he's lapping it up."  "RoboThespian" is yours for 55,000 pounds ($90,000), said Will Jackson, director of the firm that created it.  "What's unique about the robot is that it can do nearly every motion that a human can do. There are only a few horizontal movements of the wrist that it struggles with," added Jackson.  For the moment, "RoboThespian" is rooted to the floor but its developers hope to get it mobile as soon as possible. "Getting robots to move requires some tricky maths and millions of pounds," said Hold.  "Also, you need to make sure it doesn't kick kids out the way," he added.


Commentary: A robot-themed play festival coincides with media focus on robots

Denver Actors Forum website, 3/2/11

Would you believe that the world's press media has initiated mass coverage on robots and computers as a result of the announcement of Theater Company of Lafayette's "Machines Like Us" new play festival?  Neither would we.  But it is a heck of a coincidence.

1.  Last week on TV's Jeopardy game show, the IBM computer Watson beat the pants off the show's two all-time human champions in a 3-day match.

2. The cover-story of last week's Time Magazine was about the Singularity Movement and the fact that a large number of prominent scientists are forecasting that by the year 2045 it will be possible to integrate computers and humans more or less completely.
3. Larry Page, one of the original founders of Google and one of the foremost proponents of the Singularity Movement, has just stepped back in as CEO.
 It's thought that he's going to make large investments in Singularity computing.
4. The cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly Magazine is "Why Machines Will Never Beat the Human Mind."  (We guess everyone's entitled to their own opinion.)

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