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shameless pleading

Robot

Gort retired to Tampa and married a Roomba.

Dear Word Detective: I recently went to your website for the first time and found it to be awesome. But I could not believe I was looking for a word that you have apparently not yet detected: Robot. Where did that come from? Surely not Isaac Asimov. — Mark.

Well, there are a lot of words out there. In any case, no, Isaac Asimov didn’t coin “robot.” Asimov did, however, popularize robots in dozens of his science fiction stories and novels, and, in his 1942 story “Runaround,” he devised the “Three Laws of Robotics.” (Asimov had already coined the word “robotics” for the science of robots in 1941.) Asimov’s “Laws” for robots (basically “Don’t hurt humans, Do as we say, and Don’t wear white after Labor Day”) were widely accepted as gospel and utilized by other science fiction writers. Sadly, although Asimov and my father were friends, I never met him.

The word “robot” first appeared in English in 1922, in a translation of the play “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” by the Czech writer Karel Capek, which had been staged in 1920. The “robots” in Capek’s play were neither the clunky metal automatons of 1950s “space operas” nor the sleek humanoid T-Series machines of Ahnold’s Terminator movies. Capek’s robots were artificial humans, constructed of organic material, with their own (albeit somewhat limited)  intellects. From what I’ve read, it seems that much of the play is devoted to an examination of the morality of exploiting the “robots.”

Karel Capek credited his brother, the artist and writer Josef Capek, with suggesting that he call the creatures in his play “robots” rather than, as Karel had originally intended, coming up with a word based on the Latin word “labor” (work). Apparently Josef had previously used “robot” in this sense in one of his own short stories. In a curious case of recursion (and possibly a smidgen of time travel), “robot” appears in the Czech language title of Capek’s play as if it were an English word, which it wasn’t until the play was later translated into English.

Josef Capek derived “robot” from the common Czech word “robota,” meaning “hard work or drudgery,” which has relatives in several other languages, including German, Polish and Russian. This “robot” was originally a system of feudalism in which serfs paid their lords for their plot of land with periods of forced labor.

The initial definition of “robot” in English, based on Capek’s play, was “an artificial human being,” which captured the imagination of other science-fiction writers as well as captains of industry (“Robots were by all means better for use in factories and in armies, making cheap labor material, and not causing any troubles as strikers.” NY Times, 1922). But almost immediately, the less-than-effusive personalities of fictional robots gave us “robot” meaning “a person who acts mechanically, without feeling or thought” (“Mr. G. Bernard Shaw defined Robots as persons all of whose activities were imposed on them.” 1923).

While truly fully-functioning humanoid robots have apparently yet to be developed (although I have my suspicions about the clerks at the DMV), robots are now common in industry and in the form of “robot” computer software, which performs highly repetitive tasks, such as sifting though your email looking for advertising opportunities, as well as sending out email replies to complaints about the behavior of other robots.

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