This Day in Robot History

The playwright Karel Capek in front of his famous play "R.U.R.," the one that introduced the world to the word "robot." Corbis/Wikimedia Commons

On Jan. 25, 1921, a Prague audience watched the first performance of a new play titled "R.U.R." The initials stood for a fictional company in the play called "Rossum's Universal Robots." The playwright, Karel Capek, had taken the Czechoslovakian word "robota," which means forced labor, and created the word "robot" to mean an artificial construct that has no choice but to perform labor for another.

The robots in R.U.R. aren't made of metal and wires, and they are capable of thinking for themselves. In the course of the play, these robots decide that they deserve a choice in whether or not they work for others. They rise up against their human masters, and ultimately the human race is eliminated.

Even in their debut, the robots are out to get us.

While robots haven't harbored any noticeable grudges against humankind in the real world, there have been some tragedies involving them. One happened also on Jan. 25, but in 1979. A Ford assembly line employee named Robert Williams was retrieving parts from a storage facility when one of the factory's robots collided with him. Williams died instantly from the impact. His was the first recorded death as the result of an accident involving a robot.

Today, we have branches of robotics dedicated to making robots that interact with humans safe and reliable. At the same time, we have specialists in artificial intelligence working on boosting AI capabilities in robots in a responsible manner. Before long, robots will be driving our cars and doing our jobs. Which gives us plenty of time to catch up on all those "Terminator" movies.