Humanoid robots set to take over hospital lab


The revival of a century-old play provides entertaining focus on the ethics of building organs to order. Andrew Masterson explains.


In theatre, at least, the first depictions of robots were humanoid, not mechanical.
In theatre, at least, the first depictions of robots were humanoid, not mechanical.
Donald Iain Smith / Getty Images

In a wonderful collision between science, science-fiction and art, actors and researchers from the BioFab3D laboratory at St Vincent’s Hospital in the Australian city of Melbourne are set to perform a 100-year-old play that gave the world the word “robot”.

BioFab3D is Australia’s first biomedical engineering and robotics centre. It gathers together researchers, clinicians and engineers in a quest to meld cell science and materials science to create a new generation of prosthetic cartilage, muscle, bone and organs for use in the treatment of trauma and disease.

As part of National Science Week, the lab staff have teamed up with self-described “play-making collective” PlayReactive to present an adaptation of a 1920 science-fiction themed play called R.U.R, by Czech writer Karel Capek.

The play’s title is short for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or, in translation, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”.

Unlike the mechanoid interpretation of the word that came to dominate popular culture, Capek’s roboti were made in a factory from a soft jellylike substance. Distinctly humanoid, they were much more akin to the modern sci-fi concepts of androids or cyborgs than tin-can machines.

Capek’s vision for the wondrous mass produced neo-humans was a dark one. In the play, the roboti revolt and humanity is destroyed.

The latest revival is nowhere near as apocalyptic. Adapted by Melbourne playwright Rohan Byrne, the new R.U.R takes place in and around the real bio-fabrication machines inside BioFab3D. It will focus on the ethical questions that surround the manufacture of consumer organs.

“Science fiction is becoming reality,” says facility manager and Cosmos contributor Cathal O’Connell.

“Our BioFab3D laboratory is focused on literally 'building body parts' using living cells – and the perfect venue to reimagine Capek's vision in a modern context.”

The show will be performed eight times between August 9 and 19, including Sunday matinees. For more details and tickets, click here.

  1. https://www.biofab3d.org/
  2. https://www.playreactive.com/about
  3. https://www.scienceweek.net.au/r-u-r-2020/?search-events-count=10&search-online-count=10&default-search=1
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