The word “robot” has been hijacked. Twice. (Or thrice, if we want to be pedantic, but I won’t be.)
THE ORIGINAL SPIN
The word “robot” was introduced into the English language by the play R.U.R., written in Czech by Karel Capek, and first performed in Prague on January 25, 1921. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzálni Roboti, though even in the first edition of the play, according to the play’s Wikipedia page, published by Aventium in Prague in 1920, the cover designed by Karel’s brother Josef Capek, had the English version as the title, Rossum’s Universal Robots, even though the play within was in Czech.
According to Science Friday, the word robot comes from an old Church Slavonic word, robota, meaning “servitude”, “forced labor”, or “drudgery”. And the more you look the more references indicate that it is not known whether Karel or Josef suggested the word.
But, in any case, in the play the robots were not electro-mechanical devices, in the way I have used the word robot all my life, in agreement with encyclopedias and Wikipedia. Instead they were “living flesh and blood creatures”, made from an artificial protoplasm. They “may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves”. Both quotations here are from the Wikipedia page about the play, linked to above. According to Science Friday they “lack nothing but a soul”.
This is the common story, more or less, about where the word robot came from.
But, but, maybe not. According to this report the word “robot” first appeared in English in 1839. 1839! It says that robot at that time referred not to an individual, neither machine, nor protoplasm, nor electro-mechanical , but rather to a system, a “central European system of serfdom, by which a tenant’s rent was paid in forced labour or service”. Ultimately that word came from the same Slavonic root.
So perhaps in English the word “robot” changed in meaning between 1839 and 1920. Though realistically perhaps no one who picked it up from the Capek brothers in 1920 had ever heard of it from the old 1839 meaning. And in any case it seems such a different use that I don’t think it really is a hijacking. Just as “field” was not “hijacked” in going from a field of wheat to a field of study.
I am not going to count this as a “robot” hijacking.
In 1920 “robot” referred to humans without souls, manufactured from protoplasm. But that meaning changed quickly.
THE FIRST HIJACKING
By the time I was deciding what really interested me in life, the word “robot” had turned into meaning a machine, as given by the online English Oxford Living Dictionaries, where it defines the word as:
A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.
Here is the cover of the January 1939 edition of Amazing Stories.
There is a robot, a machine, right on the cover, illustrating a story titled I, Robot. But for me the big news is that the author of that story is Eando Binder (a nom de plume for Earl and Otto Binder), rather than Isaac Asimov–we’ll get back to Dr. Asimov in just a minute. I have found one slightly earlier reference to mechanical robots, but it is only a passing reference. In this Wikipedia list of fictional robots there is a story titled Robots Return, by Robot Moore Williams, dated 1938. Unfortunately I do not have the text of either of the 1938 or 1939 stories, so can’t tell whether the authors assume that their readers implicitly understand to what the word “robot” refers.
However, in 1940, only twenty years after the R.U.R. play was first published with the English version of robot on its cover, Isaac Asimov published his story Strange Playfellow in Super Science Stories, an American pulp science fiction magazine (of the Binder story he said “It certainly caught my attention” and that he started work on his story two months later). Later, retitled as Robbie, the story was the first one that appeared in Asimov’s collection of stories published as the book I, Robot, on December 2, 1950. I have a 1975 reprint of a republished version of that book from 1968. In that reprint, at the bottom of the third page, after describing a little girl, Gloria, playing with a mechanical humanoid Robbie, Asimov uses the word “robot” to refer to Robbie (note the alliteration) in a very casual way, as though the reader should know the word robot. The word “robot” got hijacked in just 20 years, in the popular culture, or at least in the science fiction popular culture, from meaning a humanoid made of protoplasm in a Czech language play in Prague, to meaning a machine that could walk, play with, and communicate with humans. Note that 1940 was before programmable computers existed, so there was some more evolution to get to the definition involving computers as quoted above.
In the 1920’s such mechanical humanoids seem to have been referred to as “automatons”.
I have no idea what contributed to that transformation of the word “robot”, but I am eager to see any citations that might be offered in the comments section.
So now we have the first real hijacking of “robot”. But there has been a more recent one. I may not care deeply about the earlier hijacking, but I sure do care about this one. I am an old school roboticist in the sense of the definition in italics four paragraphs back. And my meaning has been hijacked!!
THE SECOND HIJACKING
In the more recent hijacking, “robot” has come to mean some sort of mindless software program, that does things that are relentless, or sometimes even cruel, though sometimes amusing and helpful. This new use is getting so bad that it is often hard to tell from a headline with the word “robot” to which form of robot the story refers. And I think it is giving electromechanical robots, my life’s work, a bad name.
I think it starts with this secondary definition which also appears with the English Oxford Living Dictionaries definition from above.
Used to refer to a person who behaves in a mechanical or unemotional manner.
And then it includes an example of usage: ‘public servants are not expected to be mindless robots’.
Now Asimov’s robots have not been mindless, and none of mine have ever been mindless (well, perhaps my insect-based robots were a little mindless, certainly not conscious in any way). But the first industrial robots introduced into a GM automobile plant in 1961 certainly were mindless. They did the same thing over and over, without sensing the world, and did not care whether or not the parts or sheet metal they were operating on was even there. And woe be a person who got in their way. They had no idea there was someone there, and even had no idea that someone, or anyone for that matter, existed, or even could exist. They did not have computers controlling them.
I may be wrong, but I trace the hijacking of the word “robot” to two things that happened in 1994. I am guessing that there is some earlier history, but that I am just not aware of it. Ultimately it is all the fault of the World Wide Web…
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and put up the first Web page in 1991. Explosive growth in the Web started soon after, and by 1994 there were multiple attempts to automatically index the whole Web. Today we use Google or Bing, but 1994 was well before either of those existed. The way today’s search engines, and those of 1994, know what is out on the Web is that they work in the background building a constantly updated index. Whenever someone searches for something it is compared to the current state of the index, and that is what is actually searched right then and there–not all the Web pages spread all over the world. But the program that does search all those pages in the background is known as a Web Crawler.
By 1994 some people wanted to stop Web Crawlers from indexing their site, and a convention came about to put a file named robots.txt in the root directory of a web site. That file would never be noticed by Web browsers, but a politely written Web Crawler would read it and see if it was forbidden from indexing the site, or if it was to stay away from particular parts of the site, or how often the owner of the site thought it reasonable to be crawled. The contents of such a file follow the robots exclusion standard of which an early version was established in February 1994.
You can see a list of 302 known Web Crawlers (listed as a “Robots Database”!) currently active (I was surprised that there are so many!). Of the 302 Web Crawlers, 29 include “robot” in their name (including “Robbie the Robot”), 18 include “bot” (including “Googlebot”), three have “robo”, and one has “robi”. Web Crawlers, which are not physical robots, have certainly taken on “robot” as part of their identity. Web Crawlers became “robots”, I guess, for their mindless search of the Web, indexing it all, and following every link without understanding what was there.
That same year there was another innovation. There had been programs, all the way back to the sixties, that could engage in forms of back and forth typed language with humans. In 1994 they got a new name, chatterbots, or chat bots, and some of them had a more or less permanent existence on particular Web pages. Probably they attracted the suffix “bot”, as they could seem rather mindless and repetitive, again harking back to the dictionary example above of mindlessness of robots.
Now we had both Web Crawlers and programs that could converse (mostly badly) in English that had taken parts of their class names from the word “robot”. Neither were independent machines. They were just software. Robots had gone from protoplasm, to electromechanical, to purely software. While no one is really building machines from protoplasm, some of us are building electromechanical devices that are quite useful in the world. Our robots are not just programs.
Since 1994 the situation has only gotten worse! “Robo”, “bot” and “robot” have been used for more and more sorts of programs. In a 2011 article, Erin McKean pointed out that there were “robo” prefixes, and “bot” suffixes, and that at that time, in general, robo has a slightly more sinister meaning than bot. There was “Robocop”, definitely sinister, and there were annoying “robocalls” to our phones, “robo-trading” in stocks caused the 2010 “Flash Crash” of the markets, and “robo-signers” were people signing foreclosure documents in the mortgage crisis. Chat bots, twitter bots, etc., could be annoying, but were not sinister.
Now both sides are bad. We see malicious chat bots filling chat rooms intended for humans, we see “botnets” of zombie computers, taken over by hackers to launch massive denials of service on people or companies or governments all over the world.
Here is a list of varieties of bots, all software entities. Some good, some bad.
At some web sites, such as topbots.com, it seems to be all about “bots”, but it is hard to tell which ones are software or if any have a hardware component at all. Now “bots” seems to have become a generalized word for all aspects of A.I., deep learning, big data, and IoT. It is sucking all up before it.
The word “robot” and its components have been taken to new meanings in the last twenty or so years.
A NEW WORD FOR ELECTROMECHANICAL ROBOTS?
Here’s the bottom line. My version of the word “robot” has been hijacked. And since that is how I define myself, a guy who builds robots (according to my definition) this is of great concern. I don’t think we can ever reclaim the word robot (no more so than reclaim the word “hacker”, which used to be only pristine goodness forty years ago, and I was honored when anyone ever referred to me as a hacker, even more so as a “robot hacker”). I think the only thing to do is to replace it.
How about a new word? What should we call good old fashioned robots? GOFR perhaps?
One that comes to mind is “droid”, a shortened version of “android”, which before it was a phone software system meant a robot with a human appearance. Droid distinguishes itself from the hijacked version of android which refers to phone software, and is generally understood by people to mean an electromechanical entity, an old style robot. Star Wars is largely responsible for that general perception. But that is also the problem in trying to use the word more generally. The Star Wars franchise has the word “droid” completely bottled up and copyrighted. I know of three robot start up companies that wanted to use the word “droid”, and all three gave up in the face of legal problems in trying to do that.
No droids. Unfortunately.
So…what should the new word be? Put your suggestions in the comment section, and let’s see what we can come up with!
I manually filter all comments, as the majority of comments posted are actually advertisements for male erectile dysfunction drugs…