From Čapek to Lem: AI in Eastern European Science Fiction

Date: 15/2/2021

2021 marks a double anniversary in Eastern European science fiction. First, it marks the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Stanisław Lem (1921-2006), a Polish science fiction writer and philosopher, and the author of Solaris (1961) and The Futurological Congress (1971). To honour the writer and recognise his continued influence globally, the Polish government has declared 2021 ‘the year of Lem’ in Poland. Second, the word ‘robot’ was used for the first time exactly a century ago, in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered on 25 January 1921. Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the word from the Czech term for ‘serf’ or ‘indentured labourer’.

The Global AI Narratives workshop held on 15th January was a celebration of these two centenaries. The second in a series dedicated to AI narratives in Central and Eastern Europe, it explored human-machine interaction in the context of politics, history, philosophy, science, and the arts. Participants discussed how the influence of Lem and Čapek has transpired not only across geographic boundaries, but also throughout history, to guide technological development today. 

The first panel, on Stanisław Lem and Polish science fiction, opened with a presentation entitled “The First Robotic Moment: Artificial Humans in Polish SF Literature before World War II” by Dr Jerzy Stachowicz of the University of Warsaw. Dr Stachowicz underscored the significance of the 1930s political environment featured in the pre-war Polish SF literature that preceded the era of  Stanisław Lem. Writers such as Franciszek Czesław Pik (1871-1930) used robots and artificial men to critique social relations and express their scepticism towards political decisions, while circumventing state censorship. Depicted as soldiers, politicians and criminals, the robots and automata of Polish pre-war literature were not praised for their ability to efficiently execute tasks; rather, the writers focused on the machines’  lack of emotion. Writers found symbolic value in these creatures, depicting them as heads of state and presidents to convey what they saw as the inhumane and coldhearted side of politicians, alluding to some leading figures of the time. 

The second speaker, Michał Sobczyk from the Future Poland Lem Institute, traced Lem’s rise to fame and examined his continuing influence on the contemporary perceptions of technological development in Poland. In his presentation, “How Lem’s literary legacy is shaping the perception of technological progress in Poland”, Sobczyk reflected on how we can use narratives to foster public dialogue in engineering our futures. Poland’s Year of Lem will feature a myriad of Lem-inspired workshops, dialogues, presentations, and other celebratory events in Poland and beyond. In the context of these celebrations, it is evident that Lem’s ideas are still relevant today, and that the Year of Lem serves as a great pretext to engage the wider public in discussion about contemporary and future technological progress. In his works, Lem did not provide black-and-white or explicit answers, but instead sparked imagination and reflection. Today, at a time of unprecedented acceleration in innovation, it is essential to undertake a whole-society approach in developing forward-thinking tech development strategies and broader cultural narratives. 

The second part of the workshop focused on projects related to Karel Čapek’s theatrical work and wider oeuvre. Dr Klára Kudlová from the Czech Academy of Sciences discussed how Čapek used the theme of robots to explore the complexities of human nature and human interaction, citing the writer’s work as critical in unpacking hierarchies which exist in gender, civil disruption and bureaucracy. Dr Kudlová’s talk, “Features of AI and Humanness: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R,” probed the beginnings of Čapek’s legacy, claiming that to understand the writer’s disruptive, maverick influence, we need to recall the writer’s early scholastic background as a philosopher. Čapek, whose training started  at Charles University, was repelled by the heavy-handed positivism of his lecturers. We can trace his imagining of  robots – which can be seen as precursors to  contemporary AI – to his rebellious reactions to his academic training. The images from Čapek’s R.U.R. bring to mind many familiar tropes we see today in cinema, literature or games that focus on technological futures. Čapek’s rebellious streak led him to experiment with language and a broad scope of ideas, borrowing from mythology, theology and contemporary science; blending the old and the new to create bold imaginaries for the machine with the human at its core. 

Čapek’s constant questioning of known facts and established methods was in turn scrutinised by Dr Libuše Heczkováof Čapek’s own alma mater, Charles University, in her talk titled “Science, Technology and Karel Čapek’s Skepticism.” Skepticism is arguably one of the most powerful tools in Čapek’s arsenal, rooted in Nietzschean philosophy. Čapek’s writings reveal a sensitivity to the fact that machines built in the image of humankind are not only an attempt to merely replicate ourselves but to scrutinise ourselves. And the imagined imperfections that Čapek points to in the machine relate to a very real scientific set of dilemmas we experience today in AI developments – a lack of empathy, a heightened sense of bias, to name but a few. Dr Heczková also referenced Čapek’s wealth of life experiences, his restless pursuit of skepticism through his “three lives,” as a philosopher, journalist, and artist. One common feature of these roles is the importance of language.  Exploiting its healing, performative and disruptive qualities, Čapek’s language – as Dr Heczková argued – transcends the dichotomy of good and evil, conforming to Nietzsche’s ideal of looking beyond what is known. Čapek’s work tries to push the public to enquire about the established scientific dogma and provides us today with a powerful toolkit to understand our own critical  limitations better.  

Interdisciplinary collaboration is still relatively rare in the field of AI, but Čapek, realising the importance of cross-fertilisation of disciplines early on, demonstrated an interest in a wide expanse of ideas and actively sought out cross-pollination of philosophical and scientific traditions. In this spirit, Dr Rudolf Rosa, Patrícia Schmidtová and Klára Vosecká have developed the THEaiTRE project, a stage performance piece whose development they presented at the workshop as “Inverting R.U.R. with Artificial Intelligence: THEaiTRobot is Generating a Theatre Play Script to Mark 100 Years of Čapek’s Work.” Paying homage to Čapek’s R.U.R on its centenary, the project uses the GPT-2 deep learning model to generate a new, “machine-written” version of the play. Dr Rosa and his colleagues spoke about the process of training the model to produce a machine-made play for a human audience, with a human storyline at its core. An apt complement to Čapek’s R.U.R., the team spoke about their process of tackling the challenge of bestowing an AI with a sense of dramatic narrative. A collaborative, interdisciplinary effort which required data input in the form of texts as far-ranging as Samuel Beckett to The Simpsons, this project became both a creative and a mathematical endeavour, similar to the synergies seen in Čapek’s own work, fusing dissimilar fields to create something entirely novel. 

The legacy of Lem and Čapek has left an indelible mark on the way we perceive AI today. The narratives expressed in their work allow us to formulate a  framework through which to consider our own relationship to machines and broader societal norms and values. The spectrum of human emotion is captured in these AI narratives, from fear to desire. Lem and Čapek’s works form a feedback loop between two systems; the mechanical and the organic. These Central European giants of fiction-writing collectively provide an insight into the very human limits and possibilities at the core of AI and remain key visionaries in shaping AI now. 

Blog by Liv Dorak and Jess Poon (Charles University)