Origin of robots: how and when it all started

Every day we follow news of advances in the robotics sector. Robot vacuum cleaners are increasingly popular out there, Boston Dynamics models already dance better than many people out there and the Amazon is with several distribution centers dependent on automated employees.

We tend to associate the robot with very gradual advances in the present and dreaming of a future full of machines out there doing everything. But after all, do you know the origin of robots? Check out how it all started below:

the word robot

First of all, we need to talk about the origin of the term. The word robot has a very curious and quite different origin. It was born long before the actual construction of automated machines that do jobs for humans or will exterminate our species, depending on whether you are a pessimist or not.

The Czech writer Karel Capek was responsible for coining this expression in 1920, while writing a play. It was called RUR, Rossum’s Universal Robots, and tells the story of a character named Rossum, who discovers how to create human lives in factories to do heavy lifting.

They weren’t metal, but an organic material that made robots easy to confuse with humans, which only made it all the more frightening, in a Westworld vibe. And it’s not even a spoiler, because the work is over 100 years old, and it’s even a little obvious: of course they rebel against the owners in the final act. Well, this revolution of machines, which actually felt they were being exploited by us, is already a centuries-old cliché.

Robot actually comes from robota, a Slavic word meaning hard work, and that was the sole purpose of the artificial lives created by the scientist in the play. In fact, who would have given the idea of ​​robota was Josef, the writer’s brother, who was credited with Karel himself and prevented him from using labori, which would be a derivative similar in meaning, but coming from Latin.

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The idea was to criticize the intense work pace at the time, which dehumanized employees and turned everyone into machine extensions, all the same, as if they were really created in a laboratory just to handle equipment.

The two brothers were notorious opponents of totalitarian regimes and were declared enemies of the Nazi regime, which then invaded Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. Karel died at Christmas 1938 of pneumonia, and Josef died in a concentration camp for seven years later.

The play officially premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921 and was considered a success, with adaptations in several countries and a script adapted for reading, translated into several languages, including Portuguese.

References in creating robots

To understand where Karel’s idea for creating this type of creature came from, we’ll need to go back even further. That’s because, many ancient civilizations and even religious conceptions talk about giving life to inanimate beings or creating organisms in a magical or artificial way.

And there are several possible references: The Greek god Hephaestus would have created beings to work in his workshops. A Chinese tale from the third century before the common era tells of Yan Shi, an engineer who builds an almost perfect puppet, even with organs and skeleton similar to that of a real human.

There is also the narrative of the Golem, from the Jewish tradition, a giant clay figure summoned by divine powers and which could be used as a servant. Of course, we cannot fail to quote Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. The creature more or less fits the standards of a serf or forced laborer and also has its rebellious moments after a scientist defies the laws of nature to create life.

In the RUR piece, we see robots with different ideals and even personalities. There’s the one who challenges the authority of humans in a more radical way, but there’s also the one who just wants freedom and is more controlled. And this was reproduced quite a bit later in fiction.

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Over time, there were several projects and reports of mechanized devices that performed simple and non-stop tasks, such as the half-human employees in the play. But in our imagination, robot is a humanoid figure and clearly with mechanical features, whether in speech or movement. That’s why figures like the Boston Dynamics Atlas dancing and running around so efficiently are so terrifying.

Therefore, robot was also quickly adopted in fiction and enshrined in movies, plays,
books and short stories. Of course you can’t quote everything here, but we need to reserve at least one mention of Metropolis.

Fritz Lang’s work made in Germany in 1927 features the character Maria, who was not only one of the first robots to be featured in a feature film, but also for being a representation of the female figure.

Oh, and there’s another related word that didn’t come together: robotics, which is the field of study and knowledge of robots, was also a creation of fiction. It comes from a short story by Isaac Asimov published in 1941, just before the works that founded another classic by the author.

The so-called three laws of robotics, which state that a robot must not harm a human being, must follow orders from humans, and must protect its own existence, as long as this does not conflict with the other two laws.

Robot, automaton, android or cyborg?

The area of ​​research on machines has been around for a long time, but when the term robot caught on and became synonymous with it all, robotics was incorporated as well. In fact, we need to differentiate the terms robot, automaton, android and cyborg. Understand:

  • Robot: is a more general term for mechanized figures, considered unconscious, who normally have a fixed task.
  • Automaton: is a being that operates in an automated and independent way, but that responds to previous instructions or configurations. This word was used a lot before the creation of robots, but now it is less and less common.
  • Android: is a word that combines Greek terms and means “to have the form of a man”. That is, they are robots that have a visual resemblance to human beings. Every android is a robot, not every robot is an android. George Lucas messed it up when he decided to call any machine in the movies, from the humanoid C3PO to the R2-D2 a “droid”.
  • Cyborg: It is a natural organism, like a person, combined with artificial elements, like implants, prostheses and improvements. The Cyberpunk universe in general uses this a lot in their stories and Robocop, who is a human with robotic parts, is a cyborg.
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So, what is your favorite work of fiction with robots? Will we really see machines
more and more like us? Should we be afraid of Boston Dynamics? Leave your opinion in the comments.

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