R.U.R. versus Q.U.R.

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Science Robotics  24 Feb 2021:
Vol. 6, Issue 51, eabg8858
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abg8858


R.U.R. created the term “robot” and the robot uprising meme, but Q.U.R. may be more relevant to robotics.

In 1921, Karel C̆apek’s play R.U.R. gave the world the word “robot” and framed a societal conversation about robots and robot uprisings that persists a hundred years later. While R.U.R. has become a cultural touchstone, not all science fiction accepts R.U.R.’s premise of a robot uprising or even of the desirability of universal robots. Anthony Boucher’s 1943 short story, Q.U.R. (1), offers a deliberate counterpoint to C̆apek’s assumptions about robot design and economic impact; it ultimately may offer more relevance for robotics.

R.U.R. is set in a near future where human laborers had been replaced by a new creation called a robot, a Czech term connoting menial work (2). A robot was a humanoid with artificial general intelligence that could learn to perform any task a human was capable of doing. Robots had been invented by Rossum, whose name was a cognate of the Czech word rozum, meaning reason, wisdom, or intellect (3), who set up a large company dedicated to robot mass production. The name of the company, Rossum’s Universal Robots or R.U.R., reflects the corporation’s goal to make a robot that is universal in terms of applications and inexpensive enough to be ubiquitous.

The dramatic tension in R.U.R. arises in part because of the dichotomy between how, on one hand, society is praising robotics for freeing humans from menial labor while, on the other, ignoring how the intelligent robots are being treated as slaves. The robots unfortunately notice the dichotomy and eventually rebel, killing all humans except for a single person, Alquist, whom the robots respected because he chose to work with his hands despite receiving a universal basic income. The play was a heavy-handed warning that capitalism was driving the proletariat into a subhuman status with no rights or respect and eventually workers would rebel. Fast forward to 2021, where the concerns first voiced in R.U.R. now appear in heated political discussions of worker displacement, universal basic incomes, and artificial general intelligence, and R.U.R.’s robot uprising has become a staple of science fiction, movies, and video games.

Q.U.R. is similarly set in a near future where Robinc holds a world monopoly on robots. Quinby, a bon vivant genius inventor along the lines of Marvel’s Tony Stark, decides to challenge Robinc. Robinc robots are general-purpose humanoids, similar to those in R.U.R., but are expensive to manufacture and require large amounts of rare metals that could be used for other purposes. Many of the robots become neurotic from boredom since their full intellectual capacity is underutilized for most applications, a sly nod to the popularity of Dr. Susan Calvin, who had been introduced in Isaac Asimov’s robot stories 2 years earlier in 1941. Quinby mounts a contrarian approach: He will only design robots that are highly specialized for a particular task. Building on architect Louis H. Sullivan’s famous design principle of form always follows function, Quinby drunkenly creates the portmanteau “usuform” since the form of his robots is optimized for their intended use. He names his company Q.U.R., for Quinby’s Usuform Robots and goes about, adult beverage in hand, breaking Robinc’s monopoly.

Unsurprisingly, given its science-oriented audience, Q.U.R. is closer than R.U.R. to the real robots of today. Rossum’s universal robots are created by assembling biological, not mechanical, parts, much like the robots in Blade Runner (1982). Each robot has the same level of general intelligence and can easily learn new tasks from verbal instructions and demonstrations. Quinby’s usuform robots are mechanical and manually programmed with just enough intelligence for the task at hand, similar to the variations in intelligence among robots in use for manufacturing, warehouse automation, and delivery. The robots in R.U.R. are inexpensively mass produced, a reflection of Henry Ford’s revolutionary assembly line introduced in 1913. The robots in Q.U.R. are economical even though they are custom-built, in part, because in the story, Quinby applies what we would now call green engineering principles to minimize materials, a pressing issue in 1943 for World War II production.

Q.U.R. is also closer to the economic realities of today. It obviates the R.U.R. premise that robots will eliminate workers or transform humans into some version of pampered Eloi from H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). Usuform robots do not displace workers because the benefits of robots outweigh their costs only for certain applications. One such set of applications is tasks that are intrinsically unsafe for humans, for example, working with nuclear reactors and exploring space—tasks that governments were overpaying Robinc for. In real life, the use of robots after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident and for exploring Mars comes to mind. Another set of tasks that are economical are ones that humans cannot do, amusingly exemplified in Q.U.R. as making a Three Planets cocktail the way only a tentacled Martian bartender can. While tentacled aliens are classic science fiction, snake robots are a major research topic for applications that cannot be performed by humans, such as endoscopy or reaching deep into a gas turbine for maintenance. The economics of usuform robots are so well-balanced that Boucher’s story closes with everyone, from investors to everyday citizens (none of whom are displaced), living happily ever after.

R.U.R. may be venerated by society for its creation of the word robot and the robot uprising meme, but Q.U.R., with its reminder that form, and by extension intelligence, always follows function, merits veneration by roboticists. The popular press, fueled by a relatively small number of high-profile projects, such as Sophia and the DARPA Robotics Challenge, continues to frame the future with R.U.R.-style universal humanoid robots possessing artificial general intelligence. Inarguably, humanoids with artificial general intelligence is a worthy stretch goal for robotics research. But it is important for field roboticists and investors to remember that good design has historically followed the dictum form follows function.

Perhaps the real lesson of both R.U.R. and Q.U.R. is that the future of robotics will be defined by roboticists. We are the ones who can choose to ignore the media obsession with humanoid robots and artificial general intelligence to instead continue to encourage a wide variety of economical, sustainably built robots with morphologies and intelligence tailored to fit use cases. We are the ones with the reason, wisdom, and intellect, as C̆apek’s choice of name for Rossum aptly implies, to address potential societal consequences. Ultimately, it is us, not the robots themselves or the fear of robot uprisings, that define how the field of robotics will continue to expand and provide new ways to make the world a better place.


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