Where does the word robot come from?

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash
 The word Robot means to 'work slavishly'. It is a rare example of a Czech word ('robota') being incorporated into English. 

Robot  first came to public attention through Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), published in 1920. 


The play opens in a factory that makes machines that replicate human form. These machines are closer to what today would today be termed androids. 

As in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the ethical issues explored relate to individual autonomy and the danger inherent in 'playing God'. 

Dictionary dispute

Čapek credited his brother Josef with coming up with the word robot. He also wrote to the Oxford English Dictionary to correct their etymology. 

Karel had originally used another neologism labori based on the Latin word for work, labor, but was dissatisfied. His brother then pointed to the Czech word robota, which carries the suggestion of surf labour or slave.

Robots rule the world?

This dystopian implications of ever improving robotics became a staple theme in science fiction. Phillip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Michael Crichton's film 'Westworld'  (1973) have been particularly influential.  

Yet as Kathleen Richardson points out in this BBC broadcast that our notions about robots continue to be fanciful. Despite remarkable progress in robotic, they are still comparatively clumsy, ineffective machines: