The word robot was introduced to the public by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920. The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), out of synthetic organic matter. These creatures are closer to the modern idea of cyborgs or even clones, as they may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but that changes, and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race. Thus was born the notion of robots as lethal Frankenstein-like copies of humans, an idea that has reverberated through science fiction ever since, from The Terminator to Battlestar Galactica.
People usually call something “a robot” when they have no idea what it does or how it works. Once it does something useful, they call it a vacuum cleaner, a car, a coffee machine, and so on. There are a lot of devices all around us that people 50 years ago would call robots. Take a look at the cash machine, that’s a robot you’ve probably been using for decades.
Image telling people 50 years ago that there would be a person in your car telling you to “go left, go right, take the second exit”. And yet we don’t call a GPS a robot. We don’t call automatic sliding doors robots either, and yet a humanoid machine that would automatically open doors for us would certainly be called a robot. Why is that?
Creating robots is simply putting intelligence into everyday objects. Slowly but surely, we’re filling our lives with robots like cash machines, smart cities and self-driving cars. The key to understanding how these robots will change our lives is to recognize that they already have.