Deus ex Machina

Last Friday and Saturday, M.I.T.'s "Dramashop" produced Karel Capek's "R.U.R."--Rossum's Universal Robots--at Boston's Peabody Playhouse. Capek's play, which describes a future society dominated by robets, has been repeated reasonably often during the last 20 years; it was a logical choice for a robot-minded group of students.

"R. U. R." suffered from the stock-in-trade faults of amateur theater. The flats fell down backstage, and the actors blew their lines. The important last act of the play was omitted for simplicity. What made the Dramashop's "R. U. R." far more interesting than standard stuttering two-night drama was its prologue, written and read by Professor Norbert Wiener.

Professor Wiener, like Capek, has thought and written about the influence of the machine on society. In his prologue, Wiener pointed out that Capek was mistaken in postulating a society based on universal robots, that we were leaning more to specialized machines that faithfully perform specific tasks.

Then the professor turned towards one wing of the Peabody's tiny stage, clapped, and commanded: "Here, Palomilla!" Palomilla nosed out from behind a curtain, a buzzing four-wheeled cart which doggedly trailed a flashlight held by Wiener's assistant. Palomilla made mistakes; it ran back into the curtain once and stalled often. But it acted with at least as much decision and far more speed than an earthworm.

When Palomilla had crept offstage, Professor Wiener pointed out that "this is a simple animal," and described some of Palomilla's more modern deseendents. Then he leaned over at the audience and said the time was gone when we could afford to make machines for the sake of making machines, that to avoid a society of "R. U. R." we would have to start worrying about the moral value of the machines, deciding whether they were good or bad. "The engineer must become more and more a poet," said Professor Wiener, and Palomilla buzzed once more, quietly, behind its curtain.