Chesterman on The Robot Century

Simon Chesterman (National University of Singapore – Faculty of Law) has posted “The Robot Century” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The word ‘robot’ entered the modern lexicon a hundred years ago with the première at Prague’s National Theatre of Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. in 1921. Set on an island ‘somewhere on our planet’, Rossum’s Universal Robots recounts the creation of roboti. Not so much mechanical creatures as stripped down versions of humans, they were biological entities created to be strong and intelligent, but without souls. Though dated in many ways — the limited humour derives from six men on the island vying for the hand of the only woman — the play was prescient in its vision of a world in which automatons are entrusted with serving ever more of humanity’s needs and, eventually, fighting its wars. Reviews of the New York production called it a ‘brilliant satire on our mechanized civilization; the grimmest yet subtlest arraignment of this strange, mad thing we call the industrial society of today.’ A century later, debates over the place of robots in society still echo themes in the play: how to take advantage of the benefits of technology without unacceptable risk; what entitlements are owed to entities that at least mimic and perhaps embody human qualities; what place is left for humanity if and when we are surpassed by our creations.