Many of our readers, and logically, might suppose that the word robot is a new comber in the English language, most likely coined by some American writer, or Hollywood itself.
Yet the real story of the word leads us into a quite different direction.
The word takes its roots from the Old Church Slavonic rabota, which was a word to describe forms of, typically forced, labour and which kept its primary meaning of ‘work’ in contemporary Bulgarian and Russian languages.
The term spread the word about the Middle Ages Central European system of serfdom /feudalism, where serfs who occupied a plot of land were forced to work for the owner of the land and in return were entitled to protection and justice.
The term robot firstly entered the English language, through German, with exactly that meaning, to describe the system where a tenant’s rent is paid in forced labour or compulsory service. Our word was firstly used in print to describe the feudalism system in Hungary and nowadays Romania, in John Paget’s Hungary and Transylvania: with remarks on their condition, where in 1839 he writes that: “The system of rent by robot or forced labour..is a direct premium on idleness”.
The modern meaning of the word robot, to bring images of an intelligent artificial being, has its origins in the 1920 play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play begins in a factory that produces artificial people, called roboti in Czech. The robots are designed to work for humans and serve them, yet eventually turn on their masters and wipe out the human race. Čapek originally named the man-made artificial beings labori (after the Latin labor ‘work or product of labour’), but eventually opted for roboti at the suggestion of his brother, Josef Čapek, an artist and writer, himself. The term robot was coined by Josef, but popularised by Karel Čapek, whose play was translated into 30 languages by 1923.
The intelligent artificial beings grabbed the imagination of other science-fiction writers and industry leaders, as the first mention of robots coming from 1922, from the 13 August issue of The New York Times indicates: “Robots were by all means better for use in factories and in armies, making cheap labor material, and not causing any troubles as strikers.”
Almost in parallel, the term developed yet another meaning – to name a person who acts mechanically, without feeling or thought, as The Westminster gazette notes on 22nd June 1923: “Mr.G. Bernard Shaw defined Robots as persons all of whose activities were imposed on them” .
With recent advances in computer science, artificial representations of humans are becoming widely spread and serving the human race without giving indications of intentions to wipe it out.