Midway along the journey … I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.
– Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, “Inferno”
In a number of Slavic languages the noun “robota” means “work”; its derivative “robotnik” means a worker. The equivalent of “I go to robota” is a standard morning sentence in many East European homes. When in 1921 the Czech writer Karel Capek needed a new noun for his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which featured a machine that could work like a human, though in a somewhat mechanical manner, he needed only to follow Slavic grammar: Chopping off “a” at the end of “robota” not only produced a new noun with a similar meaning but moved it from feminine to masculine. It was just what he wanted for his aggressive machines that eventually rebelled against the humankind and ran amok. The word robot has stuck far beyond Capek's wildest expectations— while, interestingly, still keeping his original narrow meaning.
Among the misconceptions that society attaches to different technologies, robotics is perhaps the most unlucky one. It is universally believed that a robot is almost like a human but not quite, with the extent of “not quite” being the pet project of science fiction writers and philosophers alike. The pictures of real-life robots in the media, in which they ...