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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Where does the word robot come from?

Robot is a rare example of a Czech word ('robota') entering English, via a Sci Fi play called RUR.
R.U.R. is a science fiction play in the Czech language by Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, an English phrase used as the subtitle in the Czech original. It premiered in 1921 and is noted for introducing the term ‘robot.’ The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people called ‘robots.’ Unlike the modern usage of the term, these creatures are closer to the modern idea of androids or even clones, as they can be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans, although that changes and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. After finishing the manuscript, Čapek realized that he had created a modern version of the Jewish Golem legend.
The play introduced the word Robot which displaced older words such as ‘automaton’ or ‘android’ in languages around the world. In its original Czech, robota means forced labor of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters’ lands, and is derived from rab, meaning ‘slave.
This meaning is some way from the modern usage of robots as sophisticated technological gadgets. As Kathleen Richardson points out in this BBC broadcast, our notions about robots are fanciful - they are generally clumsy, ineffective machines:

Listen!

So robots are not going to rule the world any time soon. But are they going to challenging for the Marathon Gold Medal at the next Olympics? On this evidence, perhaps not.

In the broader sense, however, robotics are revolutionising ordinary lives. The impact of Moore's Law has resulted in ever cheaper computer doing ever more unlikely thing - driving cars for us, for example - Race Against the Machine author Andrew McAfee explains in this BBC podcast.

Interestingly 'robot' has been reduced to a diminutive in IT - search 'bots' for example.

Japanese Androids Train for First Ever Robot Marathon

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