Robotization - Then and Now
Karel Čapek, the Czech author, coined the term “robot” (from “robota”, labor in Slavic languages; “robotnik” means “worker”) in 1920. In his play, R.U.R. - Rossum Universal Robots, artificial humans made of synthetic organic materials were produced and worked in factories and developed lives not very different from those of the people. R.U.R. became a science fiction classic between the wars, and its topics were taken up with great enthusiasm in the 1950s and 1960s. The Cold War found its expression in space competition, among others. Cybernetics and cyborgs seemed to be an inescapable future, initially in space travel, but then in other kinds of industrial production. Already in 1942 Isaac Asimov had formulated his Three Laws of Robotics, meant to constrain humanoid machines to their subordinate place with relation to humans. It was fiction, but has been taken very seriously by AI researchers and others ever since. When the Iron Curtain fell, space travel lost its attractions, but robots entered production processes in many industries. The end of the 1970s had seen the latest of recurring debates about automation, technological unemployment and deskilling, triggered by Braverman’s book (1974), but it had faded out in the 1980s. Now the debate is back. “Robots could take half of the jobs in Germany” is a typical newspaper’s title nowadays. Serious authors write either enthusiastic or dystopic books about robotization (John Searle has recently critically reviewed two from 2014, Floridi’s enthusiastic The Fourth Revolution and Bostrom’s dystopic Superintelligence, protesting that computers will never develop a consciousness). Apparently, we are witnessing a “robot revolution” – or so such serious sources as BofA Merill Lynch investigators claim. In what follows, we first analyze the fears and hopes automation has occasioned, as reflected in popular culture from the coining of the term “robot” to the present media hype. Have such hopes and fears changed, and did the changes reflect actual changes in robotics, or do they remain the same?
Gothenburg Research Institute