Words can take many forms as they travel through time. Let’s dive into the past and find out how the word “robot” made its way into the English lexis.
It was during the time of Austro-Hungarian Empire - the rulers of central Europe - when the word robot was used for the first time. The economy depended solely on farming; and society was organized into two major groups, lords and peasants. The lords owned the lands and peasants worked for them; however, the peasants were given portions of the land where they could grow crops for themselves. The peasant would work his own little plot and the lord’s. The bigger the peasant’s plot, the longer he had to work the fields of the lord who had granted it to him. This system was called robot. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, robot was a “central European system of serfdom, by which a tenant’s rent was paid in forced labour or service”. Sounds weird, right? Because there is no science involved here. But this is how the word robot started its journey.
In 1848, Emperor Josef II hated the idea of lords giving peasants portions of their land so he abolished the robot system.
Luckily, robot, as a word, survived. In 1920, 72 years after the abolition of the system, Karel apek, a Czech, was writing a play. It was a “spooky, futuristic play about a factory that produced willing servants out of biological matter”. Mr apek, a language genius, took Latin root “labor” and called these manufactured servants “labori”. Also, it could have been derived from Czech word “robotnik” meaning (forced worker or slavery).
Exactly at this point Karel’s brother, Josef, suggested calling them “robots” instead. Karel listened to his brother and changed the play accordingly. In the play, the robots were designed “to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race”. The servants were featured as cyborgs as they can be mistaken for real people.
We can now see a broader meaning of robot coming into sight which is someone forced to do repetitive industrial work and treated inhumanely by others. The play was performed under the title R.U.R: Rossum’s Universal Robots and was such a success that the word arrived in English two years later.
The word robot had already been in use but it was used with references to European politics only. And with this tiny development, a politically-charged word entered into the world of science.
Today, Oxford English Dictionary defines robot as “an intelligent artificial being typically made of metal and resembling in some way a human or other animal.”
In 1938, apek’s play was adapted by the BBC, and became the first piece of television science fiction ever to be broadcast.
Later, Isaac Asimov, science fiction author, invented the word “robotic” and got famous for formulating Three Laws of Robotics.
If you read technology news then you must be aware of how much scientists are obsessed with the idea of creating robots that could be as awesome as humans. That’s why robots are getting smarter and creepier day by day. And I wonder if robots like Sophia and Jibo, would ever take over humans. I hope not!