Word origins are strange. America is named after the Italian cartographer and explorer Amerigo Vespucci. The origin of the word “robot” is also quite strange, but not so far off as America’s naming.
In 1920, before automation as we know it today was even conceived of, Czech playright Karel ?apek introduced the word “robot” (Czech for “forced labor”) in his play Rossumovi Univerzalni Roboti – in English that translates to Rossum’s Universal Robots.
The robots in this play were not what we would call robots today, and they weren’t made of steel, plastic, and lines of code. Those robots were manufactured as pseudo-organic components out of a substance that acted like protoplasm in a factory, then “assembled” into humanoids.
Despite these differences in form, the play has some striking similarities to modern society. These biological robots, which were produced in a factory, made production of goods much cheaper and were essential to the economy. Certainly this is a parallel to today, and probably a good thing in and of itself.
Unfortunately, as the play progresses, the robots become unhappy with their role in society. The play ends with a robot rebellion and a sort of potential rebirth of a robot society.
If this seems familiar, many subsequent science fiction works (Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, Robopocalypse) parallel this pattern. What is a little disturbing is how prophetic this play became about today’s society using robots for cheaper goods, and that some theorize that a “singularity” or true computer intelligence is on the horizon.
Robots, though in their original form referred to creatures that were very similar to humans, can now refer to nearly any sort of programmable automation. The word “android,” at least in robotics, refers to something that tries to imitate the form of a human. For example, in Star Wars, R2-D2 would be a robot, whereas C-3P0 would be an android. In that fictional universe, however, the abridged form of “droid” is used for both types of mechanical creatures.
In a strange twist, as actual androids now exist in some forms, the word has been co-opted instead as a smartphone operating system. Perhaps this name was meant to signify that its goal was eventually to be as useful as a human assistant, able to remember appointments, calendar events, and even respond to voice queries.
Before robots, androids, or even vacuum tubes, people still attempted to create mechanical devices that imitated a human or animal’s ability. A cuckoo clock would count as this type of mechanism, or even other rare devices that could write or draw using mechanical means.
Perhaps the most famous automaton, in actuality an ingenious farce, was called the “Mechanical Turk.” This device, constructed by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, debuted in 1770, and used a system of levers and pulleys to allow a mechanical man on top of a cabinet to play chess.
The secret was that the Turk was controlled by a person inside his cabinet. Though ultimately not as intelligent as many believed, the person inside was still able to beat many humans, including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.
In another strange twist, if you search for “Mechanical Turk” on the Internet you likely be pointed toward an Amazon service. This service allows you to ask it to do something that a computer can’t currently do, like certain types of research, and it then distributes the task to actual humans for completion. Like the Turk, the user sees automation, but there is really a human controlling the output.
Although “robotics” is a fairly universal word, perhaps “automation” is even more inclusive. As an engineer working in manufacturing, I’ve worked with robots and assembly cells. Both did the same thing by following a program and responding to sensor inputs to assemble a product for humans to use.
An assembly cell can be a relatively simple dial table that rotates so tools interact with parts in a sequence, or one can be much larger, integrating multiple robots and other mechanisms into one production unit. Perhaps this type of automation could be considered a sort of a robotic overlord, or perhaps, even a universal robot?