Thursday, February 17, 2011

Robot - a Czech serf

When I was about 10 (this would be 1959) my school friends and I used to talk often of robots.  But pronounced the word robo, as if the word were French.  Why did we do this?   It's actually from a Czech word, robota, meaning "serf" or "slave" or "forced labour". Throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1514 to 1789, a system of robota was in force to extract labour from peasants, similar to obligatory work systems elsewhere in Europe.

(In France such forced labour was called corvée and I was taught at school that it was one of the “causes of the French revolution”.  There’s an informative Wikipedia article on it.  It seems to have had an uninterrupted history going back to the Roman Empire.  It was abolished in 1789.  Interesting that the Austro-Hungarian Empire abolished it the same year.)

The term robot was first imagined as a character in a play by the Czech playwright Karel Capek (1890-1938), performed in Prague in 1921. The play's title was R.U.R., an abbreviation of Rosaum's Universal Robots.  The black and white picture appears to be from a production of the Capek play but I have no more information about it.   It puts me in mind of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, which film I have to admit is a big favourite of mine. 

I saw it when I was about 5 (I suppose) and I was scared by the talking trees as Dorothy and her friends walked through the forrest. I clearly remember grabbing on to my mother's arm at that scene. 

But back to the Tin Man.  Until seeing the the black and white picture at left when I was researching this piece, I had never associated the Tin Man with a robot.  Yet the resemblance of the RUR man and Tin Man is quite striking.  The date of The Wizard of Oz is 1939.

The word `robotic', I have discovered, first appeared in the short story Runaround (1942) by Isaac Asimov, later included in Asimov's famous book I, Robot.

The word is now applied to any manufactured device that is capable of doing work ordinarily done by human beings, and has become an iconic part of modern culture. It had certainly achieved this status by the late 1950's.  How much earlier than this, I am not sure. 

Kathleen Richardson is to give a lunchtime lecture talk entitled ‘Will robots take over the world?’ on 24 February at UCL, and she appeared on BBC’s Start the Week, which is where I found all this out.  I shall be in London on the 24th.  With luck I'll be able to attend.

1 comment:

  1. Co-incidentally I heard an item on the radio yesterday about robots carrying out very complicated surgery, and being particularly good when a high-level of precision is needed. They played the audio of such an operation being carried out, on a prostate I think, and pointed out that while in this instance the doctor controlling the robot while viewing proceedings on a screen was in the same room, it's envisaged that such an operation could be carried out remotely from the other side of the world! Truly amazing. Just a shame the NHS won't ever be able to afford such cutting-edge technology again....