Robots have arrived. They’re sorting your packagesdeciding what you see on Facebook and might be coming for your job.  

But have you ever wondered where the word “robot” comes from? 

It traces its roots to the Czech word “robotnik, which means “slave,” according to the Online Etymology DictionaryRobotnik” comes from “rabota,” the Old Church Slavonic word for servitude. 

In English, the word “robot” first appeared in a translation of Czech playwright Karel Capek’s 1920 sci-fi drama “RUR,” or “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” In his play, Capek describes a company that manufactures and sells workers that look and act like humans, but lack souls. 

“The Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul,” says the play’s human protagonist, Harry Domin. (His surname, it’s worth noting, is also a Latin prefix meaning “master.”).

In Capek’s story, the intelligent servants rebel against their human masters. It’s a tale that’s been echoed again and again as artists and writers grapple with rapid technological change. Books and films like “Frankenstein,” “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “i, Robot” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” all depict mechanical beings struggling to throw off the yoke of human mastery.

These books and films express the deep, nagging human fear that our uniqueness, and our dominance, will be threatened by our own creations. 

We fear, in other words, the battle cry of the robot Radius in Capek’s play: “You will work! You will build for us! You will serve us!”

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