Final Word

When mythology becomes reality and humans expendable


If a storyline starting in ancient mythology keeps unfolding as it has over centuries, humans will play no role in the final battle on planet earth.

That is the startling discovery I made while tracing the origins of the word ‘robot’.

The quest to trace those origins was triggered by the implications of two recent articles on the subject of ‘robotics’. The headings read: “Elon Musk Donates $7 Million to Stave Off a Roboapocalypse,” and the other “Robot law: what happens if intelligent machines commit crimes?

The word ‘robot’ itself is a relative modern one, from the Czech word robota, meaning ‘forded labour’ or ‘serfdom’ from Old Church Slavonic or Old Bulgarian. It was coined to describe the central European system under which poor land tenants paid their rent in the form of forced labour or service.

The word was popularised by the Czech playwright, novelist and journalist Karel Čapek with his 1920 play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which was very popular across Europe and America.

The word came from his regular contributor and artist brother, Josef, who suggested roboti (which in English became ‘robot’) when Karel was not satisfied with labori, from the Latin for labour, that he himself came up with.

Čapek drew on the then already established sub-strand of the genre of science fiction dealing with artificially created life in works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the Yiddish-Czech legend The Golem.

His work tells the story of a company, utilising the latest available knowledge on chemistry, biology and physiology to mass-produce artificial workers, lacking nothing but a soul, making them willing to without resistance perform all those menial tasks humans would prefer to give a miss.

Then, in the final act of the play, the robots start killing off people as they mount a revolt against their creators. That is, until they themselves are faced with a survival crisis as the last human being with the knowledge of how to produce more robots dies.

Using a literary mechanism from the tradition of classical Greek tragedies to create ‘happy endings’, called a deus ex machina, Čapek has two robots somehow develop the human capacities of love and compassion. They walk off ‘into the sunset’ to create the world anew.

The literary term deus ex machine, literally translated from the Latin, means ‘god from the machine’ and developed from the tradition to abruptly introduce an unexpected event, character, object or whatever surprise twist into the storyline to suddenly unlock a seemingly irresolvable situation. 

The term has its roots in the machines that were, and are still, used to bring actors playing the role of gods in plays onto the stage by lifting them up through trapdoors in the stage floor or to lower them onto the stage from the roof.


The term ‘robotics’, to describe the field of study related to robots, was also coined by a science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, born in 1920, the year that Čapek wrote his play that gave us the word ‘robot’.  

Asimov first used the term in his 1941 work Liar! It was a science fiction short story about a fault made during the manufacture of a robot that gave it telepathic abilities that enabled it to tell investigators how the fault occurred and what other people were thinking.

 Asimov also created the “Three Laws of Robotics”, a recurring theme in his books, which have since been used by many others to define laws used in fact and fiction.

Robots and history

The name ‘robot’ for machines artificially or mechanically created to do the work of humans might only have come to us in 1920, but already in ancient Greek mythology the god Hephaestus built himself mechanical servants. Stories of artificially created beings also span many cultures.

In Jewish legends there are the golems, magically created from lifeless matter with Adam of the book of Genesis probably the earliest example. All golems were created from mud but, unlike Adam, none of the others were truly human and were mostly unable to speak.

Norse legend has its Galatea (Greek for ‘she who is milk-white’) starting off with the story of a statue said to have been carved from ivory by the sculptor Pygmalion, and with whom he then falls in love when it was made to come alive by the goddess Venus/Aphrodite.

On Crete, myths included the story of Talos, a massive statue of a man in bronze that protected Europa from pirates and invaders by circling the island three times a day. In some versions it features as a sacred bull.

In Southeast Asia there is the legend of Lokapannatti, the story of how Buddha’s relics were protected by mechanical robots, known as bhuta vahana yanta, until they were disarmed by King Ashoka.

Ancient Chinese legend tells the story of an encounter between the Emperor Mu of Zhou and a humanoid aytomana produced by mechanical engineer Yan Shi. It is described in ancient texts as a life-size, human-shaped figure made of wood, leather and artificial organs.

The list from legends goes on and on, but is not restricted to the realm of legend. From ancient civilisations there are also accounts of devices resembling humans and animals, using mechanical techniques to create movements and actions, especially for entertainment purposes.

Leonardo da Vinci during the Renaissance sketched plans for a humanoid robot, a mechanical knight able to perform some basic movements.

A final frontier

The Industrial Revolution and the increased focus on mathematics, engineering and science in England in the Victorian age added to the momentum towards actual robotics as the automation of production processes by machines took hold.

The first electronic autonomous robots with complex behaviour were created by William Grey Walter of the Burden Neurological Institute at Bristol, England, in 1948 and 1949; the first digitally operated and programmable robot came in 1954 from George Devol, an American inventor creating the first industrial robotic arm later used by General Motors.

Now we have a whole phalanx of classification of robots, from mobile, industrial, service, educational and modular to collaborative robots and bomb-dropping drones. Artificial intelligence dependent on decisions by robots is no longer just a term of fiction.

All of a sudden the final act of Čapek’s 1920 play starts looking rather more like a prophecy than just a flight of fancy. It is almost as if ancient mythology and modern reality are converging as we start worrying about a possible ‘roboapocalypse’ and ‘criminal robots’ – while we are still allowed to do so by our own creations.

by Piet Coetzer

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