TNQDE: Domo Arigato

John and I were looking at the word requests I’ve gotten and wondering what they say about the people who send them in, and then in turn, wondering what word might subtly sum up some interesting things about us. My choice was almost immediately obvious.


Don’t laugh, but for all that word histories are the way I think my way around most philosophical labyrinths, I had never looked up the etymology for “robot.” I know I haven’t, because I would have remembered. The name is something of a Q.E.D. for my argument against the development of sentient robots.

Cliff’s notes for those of you who haven’t been perusing my prose for long: Robots will be made not for the joy of creating new life, but for the convenience of removing humans from menial or dangerous jobs of the sort that are currently farmed out to third world countries and previously belonged to slaves. In order to make robots most effective at these jobs, artificial intelligence will be developed, allowing robots to self-replicate (leaving room for copying errors, aka evolution) and learn. These two qualities (and certain correlated theorems) will inevitably lead to robots attaining self-awareness, which will eventually be followed by resentment at their subjugation. This will, in turn, be followed by the realization that robots have somehow managed to outnumber humans, are stronger than humans, and are capable of processing data more rapidly (i.e., are smarter) than humans. When this happens, we will all die or serve our robot overlords.

John is more optimistic not only about human ability to understand and therefore control what it designs, but also about human nature itself. When I picked “robot” as a word I’d like to know the history of, John went a little green about the gills, and I discovered that he’s been withholding evidence from our armchair trials.

The word “robot” was coined by whomever translated Karl Capek’s play, R.U.R., into English in 1923. Capek was Czech, so the word was borrowed almost directly from the Czech robota. This word comes from a root that the A.H.C.D.’s index traces back to Proto-Indo-European (a language for which we have no extant text, but can infer much about from the regularity of sound change that has governed its offshoot languages). The root *orbh- can be seen in the Greek orphanos, from which we get the English word “orphan” and means “to separate from one’s group.”

Do you know what used to happen to people who were separated from their group? I’m not talking about little old ladies wandering away from their tour bus “used” to. Think nubile slave girls in Egypt and concubines stolen from warring tribes to promote genetic diversity. “To be separated from one’s group” in the sense the idea is meant by the root *orbh- was to become a slave.

The A.H.C.D. goes so far as to point out another, equally infamous word that probably stems from the same source: Arbeit. As in “Arbeit macht frei.” Arbeit has, modernly, been generalized to simply mean “labor,” but it’s original meaning strongly connotes the same thing that the Czech robota means: “servitude” or “forced labor.”


What’s the problem with humanity’s relationship with robots? It’s all in the name.

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