by Maurice Martin, playwright
Businessman Louis Rockwell Jr. dreams of building the ultimate sex robot. His challenges include a sexually repressed software programmer, a prudish politician, and a shambling hoard of robots made to resemble his dying father. Fortunately, Louis has what every successful manager needs: A top-notch technical staff and a loose moral code.
In 1921, a Czech playwright named Karel Capek premiered a play called R.U.R. It takes place in the factory and offices of Rossum’s Universal Robots, which manufactures artificial people who function as servants and laborers.
R.U.R. is notable for two things: First, it introduced the word “robot.” Second, the plot revolves around a robot uprising in which the artificial people slaughter their human masters–a sci fi trope that has appeared in countless stories since.
While many fictional stories have followed Capek’s template, reality has gone in quite a different direction. We are not at war with our machines… in fact, just the opposite. People adore their iPods, smart phones, game systems, and GPS devices. I look at them on the subway and on the bus, and they’re mesmerized by these devices–stroking keys, sliding pictures, listening and watching with undivided attention. They look like people in love.
I’m not the only one to make this connection. Johnathan Franzen wrote an op-ed on this topic in the New York Times in May 2011. Here’s a taste:
…our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful…
Who needs friends and relatives when you’ve got that kind of relationship literally at your fingertips? And as time goes on, our little electronic friends will become more sophisticated, satisfying more and more of our needs and wants.
Is it possible to create a machine that satisfies our most basic, primitive desires—perhaps even better than another human can? That’s what I wanted to explore in R.U.X.