Queen's University — Since 1873
6th March 2009

Domo arigato, Mr. Robotnik?

The Word Nerd takes a look at the evolving vocabulary of artificial intelligence

(Illustration by Emily Sicilia)


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There is a creature found in traditional Jewish folklore called the golem, an animate humanlike being fashioned completely from inanimate material. Some of the earliest stories of golems actually refer back to the original creation, as Adam himself was supposedly shaped out of inanimate matter—clay—and given life through supernatural means.

Although folklore says Adam and his progeny were produced by the true God, the power of creation was not limited to God alone. Holy men and magicians who sought to emulate the deity could develop the power to produce automata to act as their servants, but their creations were always inferior to God’s, being slower and clumsier than natural humans and often lacking the ability to speak.

Nowadays, holy men and magicians have been replaced by science and technology, and what was once a folk story about supernatural creation is our present and future reality. In our world of rapidly developing technology, mankind has developed the ability to create and channel artificial life in ways only dreamt of before.

Mechanical automata, having been designed and produced since before the time of Leonardo da Vinci, have come a long way since the 15th century. Robots are now utilized with success in production, space travel and housekeeping, and South Korean scientists may even have a humanlike robot in every household by 2020. Fascinating as that is, my particular interest as a word nerd is in the vocabulary surrounding all these cutting-edge technologies: their etymology, past usages and current applications.

The word “android” has its roots in ancient Greek, deriving from the words for “man” and “alike.” The first recorded use of the word was in the 13th century, by medieval German theologian St. Albert Magnus, who investigated stories of golems and reportedly created a mechanical iron man. Slowly gaining popularity throughout Europe over the next couple of centuries, the word entered the English language in the 1700s, and within a few decades had made appearances in American court patents for miniature human-like clockwork toys.

The word “robot” was coined by Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1912 play R.U.R.—Rossum’s Universal Robots. The play was translated into English and performed in London two years later, bringing with it the word “robot,” or “robotnik.” The robots in R.U.R. actually resembled the later definition of androids, as biological creatures whose skin, nerves and tissues were grown in vats and then assembled into an entity whose purpose was to serve humankind. Indeed, the original Czech word from which it derived—robota—signifies work, drudgery or serfdom.

Of course, the advent of science fiction has granted the word robot an entirely new dimension. Contrary to its early etymology, in which an android was generally defined as the mechanical representation of a man, early appearances of androids in science fiction were much more biological than machine and, unlike their ancestral golems, at least as intelligent and capable as humans (think Zhora in Bladerunner and Data in Star Trek).

Inversely, the meaning of the term “robot” in science fiction quickly came to refer to mechanical beings rather than biological. The most significant development in robot lore was Isaac Asimov’s famous Robot series, in which the robots featured are mechanical beings governed by a positronic brain commanding them to serve humans in the name of the Three Laws of Robotics. Stories such as Asimov’s adapted the meaning of the word robot, leading to its more modern application to automated machines, commonly used in production assembly lines.

In addition to co-opting existing words, modern day scientists and science fiction writers have also added liberally to the vocabulary of artificial humanity.

“Cyborg,” short for cybernetic organism, was coined in a 1960 article by scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. The term technically means an organism that consists of both natural and artificial elements, but in popular culture a cyborg is usually a human enhanced by technology. Clynes referred to the cyborg positively, as a “bridge … between mind and matter.” In fiction the cyborg has often become the focus of metaphysical questions about free will, morality and the nature of humanity.

Another trope in science fiction and theoretical science is the development of A.I., or Artificial Intelligence. Although the concept of inhuman or superhuman embodied intelligences has existed for at least as long as the golem, the scientific manifestation of the concept only officially entered the English language in 1956, when scientist John McCarthy described an intelligent agent as one that can perceive and interact with its environment, and act in its own best interest.

But to make things confusing, most of these terms, while technically quite specific, have a tendency to blur, and can even be used interchangeably. The loveable droids in Star Wars, for example, are more fitted to the standard definition of robot than androids. And Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is referred to in the text alternatively as an android, robot and cyborg. Furthermore, many of the robots in science fiction tend to develop an artificial intelligence or learn to incorporate their mechanical elements with either natural or artificial flesh, in order to make themselves more “human,” thereby also fitting the description of an android or cyborg. Even Data of Star Trek defies definition, describing himself as an android but nevertheless possessing a positronic brain—an obvious allusion to Asimov’s robots.

What can we gather from all this? For one, philosophers have pondered the true nature of humankind for centuries, and the language of technology has given philosophy a whole new vocabulary for considering what it genuinely means to be alive. Secondly, I believe the grey area surrounding the definition of these terms is indicative of how hard it is to define thinking beings, who by nature defy specific classification. For anyone who finds describing human difference and cultural distinctions a touchy subject, just give it a century or two and we’ll probably have a whole new set of rules dictating the politically correct way to refer to artificial life.

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