History of the word “robot”

The term robot was coined by the Czech playwright Karel Capek (CHAH pek) from the Czech word for “forced labor” or “serf.” Capek was reportedly several times a candidate for the Nobel prize for his works and very influential and prolific as a writer and playwright. Fortunately, he died before the Gestapo got to him for his anti-Nazi sympathies in 1938. Capek used the word Robot in his play “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”) which opened in Prague in January, 1921, a play in which automata are mass-produced by an Englishman named Rossum. The automata, robots, are meant to do the world’s work and to make a better life for human beings; but in the end they rebel, wipe out humanity, and start a new race of intelligent life for themselves.

Rossum comes from a Czech word, rozum, meaning ‘reason,’ and ‘intellect.’ The popularity of the play diminished the use of the old term automaton and robot has replaced it in just about every language, so that now a robot is commonly thought of as any artificial device (often pictured in at least vaguely human form) that will perform functions ordinarily thought to be appropriate for human beings.”

The play was an enormous success and productions soon opened throughout Europe and the US. R.U.R’s theme, in part, was the dehumanization of man in a technological civilization. You may find it surprising that the robots were not mechanical in nature but were created through chemical means. In fact, in an essay written in 1935, Capek strongly rejected the idea that it was at all possible to create such creatures and, writing in the third person, said: “It is with horror, frankly, that he rejects all responsibility for the idea that metal contraptions could ever replace human beings, and that by means of wires they could awaken something like life, love, or rebellion. He would deem this dark prospect to be either an overestimation of machines, or a grave offence against life.”

The Author of Robots Defends Himself — Karel Capek, Lidove, June 9, 1935, translation: Bean Comrad.

As stated earlier, references state that “robot” was derived from the Czech word robota, meaning “work”, while others suggest that robota actually means “forced workers” or “slaves.” This latter view would certainly fit the point that Capek was trying to make because his robots eventually rebelled against their creators, ran amok, and tried to wipe out the human race.

In the days when Czechoslovakia was a feudal society, robota referred to the two or three days of the week in which peasants were obliged to leave their own fields to work without remuneration on the lands of noblemen. For a long time after the feudal system passed away, robota continued to be used to describe work that one wasn’t exactly doing voluntarily or for fun, while today’s younger Czechs and Slovaks tend to use robota to refer to work that is boring or uninteresting.

There is some evidence that the word robot was actually coined by Karel’s brother Josef, a writer in his own right. In a short letter, Karel Capek wrote that he asked Josef what he should call the artificial workers in his new play. Karel suggested that he might call them “Labori,” which he thought might be too “bookish” and his brother muttered, “Then call them Robots” and turned back to his work, and so from a curt response we now have the word robot.

Modern Robots

According to the “Robot Institute of America,” 1979, “A robot is defined as a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.” Webster’s dictionary simplifies the definition by stating that, “a robot is an automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.” A robot is described as a machine designed to execute one or more tasks repeatedly, with speed and precision. There are as many different types of robots as there are tasks for them to perform.

A robot can be controlled by a human operator, sometimes from a great distance, but most robots are controlled by computer, and fall into either of two categories: autonomous robots or insect robots. An autonomous robot acts as a stand-alone system, complete with its own computer (called the controller). Insect robots work in fleets ranging in number from a few to thousands, with all fleet members under the supervision of a single controller. The term insect arises from the similarity of the system to a colony of insects, where the individuals are simple but the fleet as a whole can be sophisticated.

Some people group robots according to the time frame in which they were first widely used. First-generation robots date from the 1970’s and consist of stationary, nonprogrammable, electromechanical devices without sensors. Second-generation robots were developed in the 1980’s and can contain sensors and programmable controllers. Third-generation robots were developed between approximately 1990 up to the present. These machines can be stationary or mobile, autonomous or insect type, with sophisticated programming, speech recognition and/or synthesis, and other advanced features. Fourth-generation robots are in the research-and-development phase, and include features such as artificial intelligence, self-replication, self assembly, and nanoscale size (physical dimensions on the order of nanometers, or units of 10 -9 meter).

A few advanced robots are called androids because of their superficial resemblance to human beings. Androids are mobile, usually moving around on wheels or a track drive because most robots legs are unstable and difficult to engineer. The android is not necessarily the end point of robot evolution. Some of the most esoteric and powerful robots do not look or behave anything like humans. The ultimate in robotic intelligence and sophistication might take on forms yet to be imagined.

The terms android and gynoid provide separate gender classifications even for robots.

android, androidal: 1. Resembling a man; manlike (such as a robot); andromorphous. 2. An automaton resembling a man; manlike. 3. In science fiction, a robot that looks and behaves like a male human being.

Note: calling a female robot an android shows etymological ignorance!

gynoid, gynoidal: A robot shaped like or in the form of a woman as opposed to an android (like a man); as well as, gynecoid: Resembling a female or woman; womanlike, feminine.

Now you should understand why calling a female robot an android shows etymological ignorance!

“There is a strong push in favor of developing robots with greater abilities, with more flexibility, with the ability to ‘see,’ ‘speak,’ ‘hear.’ What’s more, home robots are being developed—robots of more humanoid appearance which can be useful about the house and do some of the functions classically assigned to human servants.”

Source: New Guide to Science by Isaac Asimov
(New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984), p. 866.

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