Hi, robot: how science fiction androids became real-life machines.

Author:Suderman, Peter
Position:Culture and Reviews - Column

Before there were robots in real life, there were robots in science fiction. Many decades' worth of robots. Unsurprisingly, those works of imaginative fiction led directly to the reality we live in today.

The idea of humanoid automatons goes back centuries--historian Noel Sharkey has found evidence of robot-like designs in ancient Greece--but the word robot is less than 100 years old. It was first used by the Czech writer Karel Capek in a 1920 play called R. U.R., which tells the story of a revolt at Rossum's Universal Robots, a factory that produces humanoid machines. (Capek's robots were biological creations, more like androids than metal men.)

The word robot was drawn from robota, a Czech word meaning drudge work. Capek's story set the tone for decades of robot fiction, mostly by stoking fears that the servants could eventually turn on their masters. Such scenarios were on Isaac Asimov's mind in 1939 when he wrote "Robbie," the first of what would be dozens of influential stories about future societies populated by robots.

In the introduction to The Complete Robot, a 1982 compendium of his robot tales, Asimov explains that as a sci-fi-reading teenager, he found that the stories tended to fit largely into one of two categories: Robot as Menace, which essentially reworked the Frankenstein myth of the rebellious creation; or Robot as Pathos, which imagined them as lovable companions, often abused by human overseers. Asimov's first robot story was intended to take the Pathos route, but he quickly found himself with a rather different notion.

"I began to think of robots as industrial products by matter of fact engineers," he wrote. "They were built with safety features so they weren't Menaces and they were fashioned for certain jobs so that no Pathos was necessarily involved."

No science fiction author contributed more to the way that science fiction imagined robots, and none were as influential on the field of robotics itself, as Asimov. Indeed, Asimov coined the word robotics in his 1941 short story "Liar!," about a robot that unexpectedly develops telepathic powers.

Asimov by then had already dreamed up an ethics code that would guide his writing, shape the broader popular debate, and even inspire industrial designs for decades to come. The Three Laws of Robotics were the basic operating system for Asimov's go-to fictional robotics firm, U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. The first law prevented robots from harming humans either by action or...

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