Origin of the Word "Robot"

How old is the word "Robot"?

It's sometimes hard to remember just how young the field of robotics is. We can trace the history of computing back hundreds of years, and there are stories of mechanical men as early as the U.S. Civil War. The word "robot", however, was coined in 1921, and has shaped our perception of what a robot is ever since. 

The world in 1921 was not so different than the world today. World War I had ended three years prior. Early automobiles like the Ford Model T were becoming common. People still got their news from newspapers, as radio was a few years away from widespread adoption. Electricity was common in big cities, but still unavailable in some rural areas. Of course, there was no TV or internet, but land line telephone was widely available. It was even possible to place a call between the US and Europe.

Where did the word come from?

Science fiction in the early and mid 20th century had an enormous impact in the technology that would follow. In fact we owe the word "robot" to a science fiction writer named Karel Čapek, a Czech playwright. Čapek wrote a play called "R. U. R." in 1920, and debuted it on January 25th, 1921. Written in Czech, R. U. R. stands for "Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti" ("Rossum's Universal Robots" in English). Čapek's robots were not mechanical, but were made from artificial organic material. Čapek adapted the word Robot from the Church Slavonic word "robota", which can mean "service" or "forced labor".

Scene from R.U.R.

 The Word Robot in America

 American science fiction authors incorporated the word and concept of a robot into their writings almost immediately. Most famously, Issac Asimov crafted our modern interpretation of what a robot is in is book I, Robot. I, Robot was initial published as a series of short stories between 1940 and 1950. Of course, being science fiction, Asimov's robots are capable of astonishing feats, and, of course, being the 1940's, his technological predictions are often astonishingly wrong!

For example, in his story "Robbie" (originally published as "Strange Playfellows") Asimov describes a child-care robot that is perfectly capable of seeing to all the needs of a baby human child, but lacks the processing power for speech. Conversely, his story "Liar!" describes the first talking robot, which requires a small building for the processors required for speech. In the hilarious fashion common in science fiction "Robbie" is set in 1998, and "Liar" is set in 2021.

Asimov's greatest claim to fame is the invention of the "Three Laws of Robotics". Science fiction authors have been fearful of robots from the very beginning, and even R. U. R. ends in a robot uprising. Asimov sought to prevent this by coding the Three Laws into every robot. The laws are as follows:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Through the Three Laws Asimov was able to explore human failings and prejudice without falling into the robot uprising trope.

 So How Close Did These Authors Come?

As with most things, these science fiction writings are aspirational rather than accurate. Asimov could not have dreamed that we'd all be carrying a virtual assistant in our pockets in 2021, considering he though a speaking robot would take up a whole building. Lets consider just how close we are, using tinyBot and mimicArm as examples, plus a view videos of mimic.

tinyBot, mimicArm, and mimic can't talk, but it wouldn't be that hard to make them talk. Voice recognition modules and voice synthesizers are readily available, and in fact we've made voice controlled mimicArms in the past. These robots could never carry on a conversation though, and current technology can't quite manage that level of human interaction.

tinyBot and mimicArm also look nothing like humans, but mimic does have some human qualities. Let's have a look back at a very early video of mimic. You can see that the robot does quite a good job of mimicing human mothion, but obviously only with a human operator. Technology is getting very close to a robot that can move like a human on it's own, but we're not there yet.


mimic prelim video 2 from Brett Pipitone on Vimeo.

Finally, the robots of science fiction interact seamlessly with humans. In this respect technology is far behind science fiction. We are making progress however. Even robots like mimicArm are capable of detecting and interacting with humans when given proper sensors. For example, but detecting body heat mimicArm is able to follow her humans with her eyes.


We've Come a Long Way

But there's still a long way to go! Robotic capabilities are growing every day. Today we understand far more about what's easy, what's hard, and what's possible than we did in Asimov's or Čapek's day. Some robots are here now, and more are coming. One day we might even see robots as fantastic as those Asimov imagined in I, Robot.