100 years after the word was first used in a Czech play, a 'robot' will actually try to write one

Can a robot write a play? A live-streaming event taking place at a Prague theatre later this month aims to find out.

Tom Lane

Written by Tom Lane Published on 04.01.2021 16:26:00 (updated on 04.01.2021) Reading time: 2 minutes

Around 100 years since the word 'robot' was used in a play from Czechoslovak brothers Karel and Josef Čapek, a new play, to be live-streamed due to the closure of theaters, will ask whether robots will be writing the plays of the future.

Čapek's play, titled "R.U.R," is about robots who work for humans before forming a rebellion that leads to the extinction of the human race. It was premiered on Jan. 25, 1921.

100 years to the day, Theaitre will be streaming 'Can a robot write a theatre play?' to a global audience using a team of experts including theatre representatives and artificial intelligence programmers who are based in Prague. The performance is based at the Švanda Theater.

The event will be part of a larger "Robothon" that will celebrate the origins of the word from January 22-24 with a 36-hour hackathon focused on how robotics can respond to today's challenges.

Could robots write the plays of the future? Photo: Theairtre
Could robots write the plays of the future? Photo: Theairtre

Daniel Hrbek, director of the theater who also directs the production, told Proti šedi:

"The project was created in cooperation with the Švand Theater, the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University and DAMU. The aim was to explore how artificial intelligence actually behaves and how much it is able to create a usable theatrical text. At first, I was rather skeptical about this idea, but I was even more curious about what would eventually fall out of the computer."

The computer is under the supervision of a team of computer scientists led by a computer linguist from Charles University.

The text was written in English, translated into Czech by machine translation. 

Playwright David Košťák, who, together with computer scientists, oversaw the entire process.

"Sometimes he swapped the female and male characters or clung to something, so the dialogue lost its meaning. The nut that is still difficult to crack is also the subtext -- the fact that it is not just what the character says in the play, but what he really means. Unlike sometimes stubborn living authors, however, it was enough to show the computer where he lost the thread, and he immediately started creating a new text from the appropriate point," said Košťák.

"Can a robot write a theatre play?" will be available to stream for free on the Theaitre website at 7 p.m. CET on Jan. 25.* The play will be in Czech but there will be English subtitles, there will also be a discussion which will also have English translation available.

*Due to the current situation, the date may be subject to change.

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