Hi, Robot

How science fiction androids became real-life machines.


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 inaction; the second law ordered robots to obey human commands so long as they did not conflict with the first law; the third law required robots to protect themselves, so long as there was no conflict with the first two laws. Many of Asimov's stories were investigations into aberrant robot behavior produced by the laws' loopholes and contradictions when exposed to unusual circumstances.

Asimov, an outspoken rationalist and science popularizer, was attracted to the way that robots were creations bound by logic, consistency, and rules. They were also moral creations: tools and helpers, friends and companions, to be celebrated and used rather than restricted and feared.

Isaac Asimov signing books.
Associated Press

"Robbie" tells the tale of a young girl's fascination with one such robot companion. Her parents send the robot away because her mother finds the attachment to an artificial friend unseemly and unnatural; the parents spend the rest of the story attempting to convince their daughter to get over her obsession with her lost pal.

In the end, the two are reunited, the robot saves the young girl's life—Asimov's First Law in action—and the parents give in. It's a parable about human attachment to robots, the absurdity of social stigmas on technology, and the inevitability of productive partnerships between human beings and their creations.

Asimov's Three Laws became permanent fixtures of debates about robot ethics, spawning countless books and articles. And while intelligent humanoid robots didn't become the common household appliances he foresaw, his factory-built robots sure did.

Many early industrial robots were designed and built by Unimation, a firm co-founded by the physicist/entrepreneur Joseph Engelberger, commonly known as the Father of Robotics. Under Engelberger, Unimation created the very first industrial robot, a mechanized assembly line arm called the Unimate, which was placed in a General Motors factory in 1961. By the late 1970s, the company was producing as much as one-third of all industrial factory-line robots.

Engelberger, who received a doctorate from Columbia a year after Asimov received his, explicitly credited his fascination with the subject to Asimov. The industrialist was enamored enough of the science fiction writer that he asked him to draft the forward to his 1980 book on robotics industry management practice and, a few years later, named his company's custom-built servant-bot "Isaac."

The Menace/Pathos dichotomy persists in the popular imagination today. On the one hand, robot helpers in homes and factories are an everyday reality for millions—building cars and computers, vacuuming homes, and giving us directions. On the other hand, popular culture is still packed with tales of robot takeovers. Two of 2015's most anticipated movies—Avengers: Age of Ultron and Terminator: Genisys—feature powerful intelligent robots determined to destroy their human creators.

Indeed, fears of the robot apocalypse are pervasive enough that in 2008 a team of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis held a conference workshop on how science fiction influences perceptions and interactions with robots.

"It's surprising how often people make nervous jokes about robots taking over the world," roboticist Bill Smart told New Scientist at the time. "Most people have never seen a robot before. Their experiences—such as they are—all come from movies or literature."

There's research to back up this impression. As one team of media and technology academics from the University of Sussex argues in a 2013 paper on "The Mutual Influence of Science Fiction and Innovation," the relationship between technology and fiction is a kind of two-way exchange. Science fiction influences invention, which then influences science fiction, in an ever-evolving loop of creative ideas and practical refinement.

For Asimov, that give and take between science and fiction was a lifelong reality. Late in his life, he wrote about how astonished he was to see his science fantasies come true. In an introduction to the 1985 edition of the Handbook of Industrial Robotics, Asimov looked forward to a future in which the kind of friendly, productive partnership between humans and robots he had envisioned would become even more robust.

"I see robots growing incredibly more complex, versatile, and useful than they are now," he wrote. "I see them taking over all work that is too simple, too repetitive, too stultifying for the human brain to be subjected to. I see robots leaving human beings free to develop creativity, and I see humanity astonished at finding that almost everyone can be creative in one way or another."

Humans and robots, he predicted, would continue working together, "advancing far more rapidly than either could alone." It would be a future of beneficial mutual dependence, in other words—a relationship much like the one between the science fiction thinkers and scientific tinkerers who made robots a reality. In the end, maybe the robots will take over. But only because we let them.