Which word was coined in a 1920 play by Czech playwright, Karel Čapek?

And the answer: robot.    
A scene from Čapek’s 1920 play. Photo credit: public domain. 

While much of the English language’s vocabulary has ancient roots in other languages, the word "robot" is relatively new. It came into existence in 1920 when Czech playwright Karel Čapek unveiled his original hit play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word was influenced by an old Czech Slavonic word, "robota," which meant "servitude" or "forced labor."

Whether you laugh, roll your eyes, or stare in awe at the latest developments in the field of robotics, there’s no denying it: robots are increasingly commonplace machines that have cemented their place in our daily lives. From robotic toys, to household Roombas, to factories that rely on robotic labor, strides toward more advanced and independent technology have led to significant expansion in the field of robotics.

Yet since the inception of the word in Čapek’s 1920 play (wherein the robots turned from “helpful tool” to “murderous rampage”), the idea that we should fear our robotic creations has persisted. We’ve seen it time and time again in movies like Blade Runner or Terminator, as robots are seen for their dangerous (and often strikingly science-fiction-esque) potential. But on a very real level, the technology can be seen for its safety benefits for humans. In fact, new technologies promise to let robots sense the world in ways that are far beyond humans’ capabilities. At MIT, researchers have developed a system that can watch the floor from a corner of a hallway, and pick out subtle movements being reflected from the other side—movements that even the human eye can’t see. Technology like this could one day ensure that robots don’t crash into humans in buildings, or even allow self-driving cars to see obstructed scenes.

Did you know?

Yesterday was National Science Fiction Day! National Science Fiction Day is unofficially celebrated by many science fiction fans in the United States on January 2, which corresponds with the official birthdate of famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Although it’s not an official holiday (in that it is not recognized or declared by any government), science fiction lovers across the United States pay respect to the genre by reading up on its history or watching a favorite sci-fi movie. Learn more about the holiday here.

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