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Where did the word 'robot' come from?

The word 'robot' was coined by the Czech playwright Karel Capek (pronounced "chop'ek") from the Czech word for forced labor or serf. Capek was reportedly several times a candidate for the Nobel prize for his works and very influential and prolific as a writer and playwright. Mercifully, he died before the Gestapo got to him for his anti-Nazi sympathies in 1938.

The use of the word Robot was introduced into his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) which opened in Prague in January 1921. The play was an enormous success and productions soon opened throughout Europe and the US. R.U.R's theme, in part, was the dehumanization of man in a technological civilization. You may find it surprising that the robots were not mechanical in nature but were created through chemical means. In fact, in an essay written in 1935, Capek strongly fought that this idea was at all possible and, writing in the third person, said:

"It is with horror, frankly, that he rejects all responsibility for the idea that metal contraptions could ever replace human beings, and that by means of wires they could awaken something like life, love, or rebellion. He would deem this dark prospect to be either an overestimation of machines, or a grave offence against life."

[The Author of Robots Defends Himself - Karl Capek, Lidove noviny, June 9, 1935, translation: Bean Comrada]

There is some evidence that the word robot was actually coined by Karl's brother Josef, a writer in his own right. In a short letter, Capek writes that he asked Josef what he should call the artifical workers in his new play. Karel suggests Labori, which he thinks too 'bookish' and his brother mutters "then call them Robots" and turns back to his work, and so from a curt response we have the word robot.

R.U.R is found in most libraries. The most common English translation is that of P. Selver from the 1920's which is not completely faithful to the original. A more recent and accurate translation is in a collection of Capek's writings called Towards the Radical Center published by Catbird Press in North Haven, CT. tel: 203.230.2391

The term 'robotics' refers to the study and use of robots. The term was coined and first used by the Russian-born American scientist and writer Isaac Asimov (born Jan. 2, 1920, died Apr. 6, 1992). Asimov wrote prodigiously on a wide variety of subjects. He was best known for his many works of science fiction. The most famous include I Robot (1950), The Foundation Trilogy (1951-52), Foundation's Edge (1982), and The Gods Themselves (1972), which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

The word 'robotics' was first used in Runaround, a short story published in 1942. I, Robot, a collection of several of these stories, was published in 1950. Asimov also proposed his three "Laws of Robotics", and he later added a 'zeroth law'.

  • Law Zero:

  • A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  • Law One:

  • A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher order law.
  • Law Two:

  • A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with a higher order law.
  • Law Three:

  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with a higher order law.

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