Words Worth Knowing: Robot

The Word Worth Knowing this week is Robot.

Who doesn’t know this word? Perhaps you have a Roomba at home, or you know a friend who has one.  That wonderfully efficient cleaning device is a robot. We are so familiar with the word Robot that we could bet that we invented that word and everything related to it.  The truth, though, is that it comes from another continent.  The inventor had not the slightest relationship with science and technology, but rather a great imagination. Join me in learning about the birth of Robots after a couple of definitions!

Dictionary Definition


Robot: noun. A machine controlled by a computer that is used to perform jobs automatically. (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary).

Robot: noun. (especially in science fiction) a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically. (Oxford English Dictionary).

Robot: noun. A person who resembles a machine in seeming to function automatically or in lacking normal feelings or emotions. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

The word Robot is becoming increasingly popular because we are in the golden age of technology and live surrounded by robots. There are robots in factories, in schools and even in homes.

So, Robot is one of the 10000 most commonly used words in the Collins dictionary, and I bet that figure is about to improve.

Sure you already know how to use this word, but to leave no room for doubt…

Here are a couple of examples:


− “Researchers from Europe and Israel have built a robot that can pick ripe peppers in a greenhouse”.

From Mach Website Article: New pepper-picking robot isn’t fast, but it can work 20 hours a day. 2018

− “The robot navigates using a high-resolution camera, microphone and Lidar scanner. It can autonomously open doors and walk up stairs in any terrain.”

From CNBC Website Article: This dog-like robot can perform inspections and work in isolated locations. 2018

− “I’d say they treat you like a number and they treat you like robots, and after a while, because of the brain-numbing work, you become a little bit of a robot as well”.

From News au website Article: Shocking new claims about working conditions rock online retail giant. 2018


A Play or a Prophesy?


Since the 18th century, human beings have made several attempts to build robots, for entertainment or to modernize industries. At that time, though, they were simply called “machines”.

In 1920, a Czech writer by the name of Karel Capek wrote a play in which an industry finds a way to create machines as intelligent as human beings.  These machines had the same physical form, but were unable to have feelings. The sole purpose of creating them was for them to take over the industrial tasks that humans found most difficult.  In this way they were initially a kind of “slaves” for the company.

Capek struggled to decide the name for his mechanical characters. At first he thought he would call them laboři, from Latin labor, which means “workers”.  However it seemed to him that the word was very boring and did not completely represent his characters. Luckily, Capek’s brother, Josef Čapek, suggested him to use the Czech word robota, which means “forced labor”.  The writer thought it was a great idea, transforming the word into roboti, a slight variant of Robotnik, which is “forced laborer” or “slave”.

So, Capek named his play Rossumovi univerzální roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), and it became worldwide known.  Thus the name was popularized to be used on all machines with some programmed intelligence.

A curious fact is that, at the end of Capek’s play, Robots supplant humans in all works and then rebel and take over the world, eradicating the human race. At the time this play was written, people thought it was impossible for really intelligent mechanical beings like robots to exist, and it was taken lightly.  However today we are surrounded by them. So we could ask ourselves, is it a simple play, or perhaps a prophecy?

The good thing about all this is that you now know plenty about the history of robots. If they do take over the Earth you will be able to convince them that you are valuable and perhaps be saved from elimination!

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