Perspective: Happy Birthday, Robot!

Jan 29, 2021

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the robot. Not any particular technological device or engineering marvel, but the very word and concept.

Unlike other tech terms, like “artificial intelligence” or “algorithm,” robot is the product of fiction. It came into the world by way of Karel Čapek’s stage play R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots.

In the Czech language, the word “robota” designates “servitude or forced labor,” and Karel Čapek, at the suggestion of his brother Josef, appropriated this word in order to name a class of mass produced, artificial servants who were designed to do the bidding of their human masters. The word immediately caught on, replacing older terminology like “automaton” and “mechanical man” in subsequent science fiction and eventually in science fact.

But what is truly remarkable about Čapek’s effort is that his play not only fabricated the word but accurately anticipated and set the stage for virtually everything that currently concerns us with real world robots: technological unemployment as machines come to displace human workers, the moral and legal challenges regarding responsibility and agency with artifacts designed for autonomous decision making, the establishment of a kind of technologically-enabled slavery 2.0, and yes, even the robot rebellion and uprising that has been a persistent and seemingly inescapable narrative device in all robot science fiction.

R.U.R. premiered in Prague on January 25th 1921. And this week the play and the word “robot” that it is credited with introducing to the world is 100-years young. Happy birthday, robot. 

I’m David Gunkel and that’s my Perspective.