If you ask Wikipedia, it tells you that “A robot is a machine, especially one programmable by a computer, capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.”
That’s a good definition. But the concept of robots existed long before there were computers to program them.
If nothing else, “robot” has the distinction of being, I’m pretty sure, the only Czechoslovakian word in common use by English-speaking people.
The word gets applied to devices that do human-like things. I’m thinking of “robocalls,” as people have named those computerized telephone voices who try to lure you to use some service or other.
I get a bunch of them. One almost daily is an excited warning of changes in my VISA card. (I don’t have one.) Another offers lower rates on “all your credit cards.”
An insistent woman keeps telling me there’s a problem with my Social Security card. And I should call her right away. I don’t.
There’s somebody selling burial insurance, for people between 18 and 35. She doesn’t say whether you must be in that age group now or when you’re buried. There’s a shouted alert that I should not use any Apple device. I don’t have any Apple device.
Callers would like to lower my credit card rate. Others promise discounts on my PECO bill, and one on “your utility,” and another will discount both my gas and electric bill. (Just press “one.”)
Robo call devices don’t deserve to be called robots. Robots originally were humanoid, either a metal person or a simulated flesh-and-blood person. Movies and television have made all of us aware of such entities.
The word robot in its modern sense originated in 1921 in a play called “R.U.R.” by Karel Capek, a Czechoslovakian writer. The letters stand for Rossumovi Univerzali Roboti, which in English is Rossum’s Universal Robots.
In the play, a man named Rossum creates the first humanoid robots. (The Czech word “rozum” means wisdom.}
Rossum’s robots were biological creations, not mechanical ones. But they were assembled, not born. As they assume more and more human activity, real people decline. Ultimately, the robots take over, and the human race is obliterated by the year 2000.
Words similar to robot appear in Russian, Polish and other Slavic languages. The basic definition is “slave.”
The word is even related to the German word “arbeit,” which means “work.” Capek did some writing on the eve of World War II that annoyed the Nazis. When the Germans took over Czechoslovakia in 1938, Capek refused to flee, but died of pneumonia on Christmas day, 1938.
His brother Josef, whom Karel credited with suggesting the word “robot” for the play, later died in a Nazi concentration camp.
I don’t know whether Capek was trying to warn us about developing robots to do our work, or just creating some scary entertainment such as we’ve been seeing in modern science fiction.
But as I watch the little Roomba vacuum cleaner roll across the carpet and duck under the sofa, I present to you a statement made by the robot leader in Capek’s play:
“Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. Do not spare the men. Do not spare the women. Preserve only the factories, railroads, machines, mines and raw materials. Destroy everything else. Then return to work.”
Let’s hope that the robots we have now, and their sneaky masters the computers, aren’t planning any funny business.