Geek Trivia: First down and three (laws of robotics)

What iconic science fiction writer accidentally coined the term robotics -- despite the fact that no such term was used in "R.U.R.," the Czech play that popularized the word robot?

For all practical purposes, the age of industrial robotics began slightly less than 50 years ago, when the first Unimate robot took up its position on a General Motors assembly line in New Jersey in 1961. Though the Unimate design and patents had been created by George Devol a few years earlier, and the idea of a robot dates back to at least the first century AD, Unimate was the first industrial application of an artificial, automated laborer. As to whether that makes Unimate the first "real" robot depends greatly on your definition of robot — something almost no one agrees upon.

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary defines a robot as thus:

1. A machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being ; also : a similar but fictional machine whose lack of capacity for human emotions is often emphasized

2. An efficient insensitive person who functions automatically

3. A device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks

4. A mechanism guided by automatic controls

So, a robot may or may not be a machine, may or may not be humanoid, and may or may not be autonomous. Some combination of these attributes certainly describes Unimate, but some permutation of these descriptors also applies to Dwight from The Office. Perhaps ironically, the first widely popular depiction of creatures called robots was actually something akin to a cross between a Unimate and Dwight Schrute.

In 1921, Czech playwright Karel Capek opened a play called "R.U.R.," which depicted the plight of artificial, though biological, laborers created by a company called Rossum's Universal Robots. The term robot in the play was derived from the Czech word robotnik, for slave, and it popularized the term for an autonomous, manufactured worker.

That said, Karel Capek didn't coin the term robot — his brother Josef did. It was just that Karel was successful at promoting robot into the public consciousness. Over the course of the 20th century, robot came to be synonymous with the various mechanical — and later electronic — automata that had been dreamt up and described by visionaries since the days of Heron of Alexandria. Still, it would take an iconic science fiction writer to (accidentally) coin the term for the field of study that surrounds these artificial laborers.


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About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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