JOHANNA MAYER: In 1936, the Nobel Prize committee was considering a Czech writer for the Prize in literature. He'd been nominated every year for the past four years.
JULIA PISTELL: Problem was, he was just so controversial.
JOHANNA MAYER: Julia Pistell is a writer from Hartford, Connecticut, and the host of the podcast Literary Disco.
JULIA PISTELL: Karel Capek's latest novel was about oily smelly amphibians that take over the world. He called it "War with the Newts." The novel describes these giant creatures, and their lawyers, as they expand their wet and watery territory around the world. And the Nobel Prize committee was nervous. Yes, a lot of people thought Karel was brilliant and wanted him to win, but this was way too political for the committee to endorse. Karel was a known anti-fascist and the newts kind of sounded like Nazis. And the committee was afraid of enraging Adolf Hitler, so they suggested he write something different. Did he have anything that would offend nobody? But the playwright refused to offer up something gentler. He replied, "I have already written my doctoral dissertation." He never did win that Nobel. His body of strange, prophetic science fiction was banned by the Germans, and he died in 1938, trying to warn us about what was coming.
JOHANNA MAYER: And it wasn't just newts Karel Capek was concerned about. In what would become his most famous work, he envisioned an even more frightening prospect, and a more likely one. A thing we would enthusiastically usher into existence, knowing all the while it would spell our demise. The robot.
From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer.
JULIA PISTELL: And I'm Julia Pistell. And today we're talking about the word robot.
JOHANNA MAYER: In 1920, Karel Capek wrote a play where an inventor named Rossum creates machines that look like people. These artificial people are designed to do all of our factory work. And they are truly the perfect workers. Intelligent, hardworking, and best of all, you didn't need to pay them. So what was Karel to call these obedient machines? He'd initially chosen labori, for laborers, but labori felt too bookish. So he turned to his brother Josef for help. Josef suggested something a little more rich with emotion. Roboti. It was an old Czech word for forced labor or drudgery. Roboti fit much better into a story of machines that rebelled against their own exploitation. And so he called the play "Rossumovi Universalni Roboti," or "Rossum's Universal Robots."
JULIA PISTELL: Rossum's creatures of drudgery are so very good at laboring that soon they take over all of it. There is no work left for people. And then somebody makes the mistake of making the robots just a little bit more human. They give robots souls-- or the robot equivalent-- and in return, the robots kill every living human being, except one guy named Alquist. Karel's story turned 100 last year. When you read the play, it's shocking how many of our current robot tropes are in there. Designed to steal human jobs? Check. A big twist that a human you know is a robot? Check. Robots turn on humans and kill them all? Check. And finally, robots learn to feel and fall in love? Yep, that's the grand finale. We have been retelling this exact story over and over in our pop culture for a century.
While we have Karel and his brother Josef to thank for the word robot, we've been dreaming about robot-like creations for much longer. There are stories from ancient Greece and China of lifelike creations that can move and sing and speak. But the person we think created the first real robot-like machines was Ismail al-Jazari, a 12th century inventor who lived in what is today's southern Turkey. He built mechanical servants who poured real drinks and a whole mechanical band that played flutes and drums using hydraulics and wheels. The drummers could even be programmed to play different beats. You just had to move around some pegs. Al-Jazari was so far ahead of his time that it would take another 300 years before anyone came close to what he'd made.
Now, none of these creations were meant to replace any actual work. They were just about entertaining the wealthy families and kings who commissioned them. And that was the automaton's place in the world for centuries-- amusements and toys for the wealthy. Some of my favorites were a pigeon that could fly a few feet, a 16th century a mechanical monk that just kind of prayed and walked around, and a duck who waddled around, drank water, and whose coolest trick was digesting food and pooping it out.
JOHANNA MAYER: All highly impressive. Not exactly helpful, but also nothing to be scared of. And then in the 1950s, a man named George Devol made a completely new kind of robot. George was a prolific inventor from Kentucky, and most of his stuff has been pretty much forgotten. Like the speedy weenie, a hot dog vending machine he helped design, or the Phantom Doorman, an automatic door. In 1939, the door was the star attraction at a hotel expo where a sales rep spent five days walking through it in circles. They say she clocked about 16 miles a day.
But the invention he's best remembered for wasn't such an instant hit. It was a mechanical arm. And I'm not talking about an arm with dainty little fingers and a thumb. We're talking seven feet, nearly 4,000 pounds of metal that could be fitted with suction cups or claws or anything that you could possibly need to do the drudgery of industrial work. George described this giant arm to a guy named Joseph Engleberger at a cocktail party, and the story goes that Joseph, a huge Isaac Asimov fan, replied, "Sounds like a robot to me." And they soon teamed up to build it.
SPEAKER 3: Automation's newest contribution to man. This jack-of-all-trades robot is called Unimate.
JOHANNA MAYER: Unimate was our first real deal 20th century worker robot.
SPEAKER 3: He never complains, asks for a promotion, or demands a pay raise. He doesn't break, bend, or burn, and should make some other Unimate a perfect husband, or maybe wife.
JOHANNA MAYER: Unimate was a game changer for us, and for robots, although it took a while to sink in. When George and Joseph went out to get financing, investors rejected it over and over again. They were offering up a better world where machines would do the hard, dangerous, industrial work so humans wouldn't have to, but people just didn't get it. They thought it was a weird sci-fi thing. And even after they finally got investors and landed a big customer-- General Motors-- work kind of dried up for Unimate. It was expensive, it was strange, and it just lacked the appeal of a pooping robot duck. So to drum up some excitement, George and Joseph took Unimate on a publicity tour.
SPEAKER 4: Would you welcome Joe Engleberger? Joe.
JOHANNA MAYER: In 1966, it even landed a guest spot on Johnny Carson. Unimate putted a golf ball, it poured a beer, and it conducted the band.
SPEAKER 3: Take it on the downbeat. [MUSIC PLAYING]
JOHANNA MAYER: Now that, people could get behind. Pretty soon George and Joseph are getting calls from people that wanted Unimate to perform at county fairs. It took them longer to win over their actual target customers-- American manufacturers-- but ultimately, there is no denying that Unimate had turned the production line upside down. It worked 'round the clock, never eating, never sleeping, never taking bathroom breaks. The GM plant more than doubled its production capacity, turning out a whopping 110 cars per hour. And today, good luck finding a factory that doesn't employ an army of robots.
JULIA PISTELL: So the work of robots are here at last. What now? Karel Capek warned us that if we create a thing so very like us it can replace our work, it might soon try to replace us. We have no end of stories that articulate the nightmare of robots gone wrong. Robots who stick us in a matrix and use our bodies as living batteries. Robots who make us fall in love with them and then lock us in a building and leave us to die. Robots who are supposed to take care of us in space, but instead cut off our oxygen and set us adrift. Over and over, we've imagined that if we give a robot a little intelligence, it will soon have a mind of its own. A mind that wants to murder us dead.
And yet, the robot dream still beckons. Like, we really, really want them to scrub the toilet, you know? So what if we just set some ground rules? Isaac Asimov gave it a shot with his Laws of Robotics. Number one, a robot can't harm a person. Number two, a robot must obey humans. And number three, a robot should try to survive, but only as long as it doesn't violate the first two rules. All very common sense stuff, but in story after story, Asimov shows how they backfire. The rules inevitably come into conflict, and the robots break down or end up hurting us. The lesson of the robot story is the lesson of Frankenstein. You can never completely control what you create. Which is concerning because the train has already left the station.
Take automated cars. Major ethical questions. You know, should a machine be able to decide whether to hit the old man crossing the road or veer into oncoming traffic? But it gets much creepier. The Navy has a ship called the Sea Hunter designed to patrol the ocean and find enemy submarines. The Army is developing tanks that can identify and aim their guns at targets. When it comes to the actual killing, the plan is that humans will always make the final call. But what if we change our minds? What if in the heat and mess of battle we decide hey, actually, robots are much better and faster at making those life and death calls than we are. Would we hand over the keys?
[MUSIC - THE CONTOURS "DO YOU LOVE ME?"]
(SINGING) You broke my heart 'cause I couldn't dance.
JOHANNA MAYER: There's this video that's been going around the internet. It's robots made by Boston Dynamics dancing to "Do You Love Me?" by The Contours. And this video is amazing! Like, jaw dropping. A pair of big robots do the mashed potato, the twist. Perfectly in sync with the music, incredibly lithe and nimble, they feel human.
[MUSIC - THE CONTOURS "DO YOU LOVE ME?"]
(SINGING) Watch me, now!
And then a giant robot dog trots in and starts lip-syncing to the song. At one point, the two human-like ones raise their giant arms in a V and each balance on a single metal foot.
[MUSIC - THE CONTOURS "DO YOU LOVE ME?"]
(SINGING) I can mash potato. Do the twist. I can--
The way that these robots can move, the tiny movements in their metal hip joints, it is absolutely uncanny. And it's fun. I found myself bobbing my head, tapping my feet. And of course, it is also deeply creepy. They look like toys, but they most definitely are not. I can't help imagining them twisting and mashed potato-ing their way into a home or to track down a kill target. Of course, there's already a Black Mirror episode about this where robot dogs hunt down people, and it was actually inspired by Boston Dynamics. This video, it perfectly encapsulates both sides of this bargain that we've struck. We can build a body and a mind, and they can do wonderful, unbelievable things. But there is simply no way on this Earth that we will always be able to control it. And the thing is, you can't have one without the other. Any time we nudge closer to the robot dream, we loosen the slack.
JULIA PISTELL: Of course we don't want to do dangerous or boring work. Of course we want cars to be safer, surgeries to involve less human error. And yet, back in 1920, Karel Capek programmed us to see the shadow of what might happen hand in hand with that progress. Not all ideas from science fiction come true. When they do, it feels like prophecy. But great science fiction doesn't tell us exactly what's going to happen. Great science fiction articulates the questions we're going to ask. It sees the problem. The writers who imagine HAL, or the Terminator, or even the Decepticons, not only imagine how the gears will turn, but how they will jam and stick and break.
And that's why we call them robots and not labori. The doubts we have about them are baked right into the name. A labori is simply a machine that does our work for us. As Capek wrote the word, a robot is something we enslave and exploit. It's a machine that we fear or hope or plan will someday develop a mind of its own and use that mind to remake the world.
JOHANNA MAYER: This episode was produced by me, Johanna Mayer, Julia Pistell, and Elah Feder. Chris Wood mastered this episode and helped with sound design. We had sound design and mastering from Chris Wood. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact checking help from Danya AbdelHameid. Thank you to Milan Lee for your kind review on Apple Podcasts. Well-blended is the very best compliment we've gotten. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer. She and Science Friday host Ira Flatow got along pretty well. You should hear how she was singing his praises the other day.
SPEAKER 3: He never complains, asks for a promotion, or demands a pay raise. He doesn't break, bend, or burn, and should make some other Unimate a perfect husband.
JOHANNA MAYER: See you next week.