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A Short History of Bots and Robots

Arne Kuilman on Flickr

This issue is about bots, application programming interfaces (APIs), algorithms, and software automation. Now I’d like to take an hour of my time, maybe fifteen minutes of your time as a reader, to explore a few questions about bots and robots and automation.

These Off Beat articles are about technology, science, and sometimes computer science, but they're mostly unscripted adventures in online research. They also teach how to define and answer real world questions with online research.

Plus these Off Beat articles are meant to be fun: there will be detours.

The question I want to answer this month: Where do robots come from? Are bots really robots? Do robots have to have brains? And what’s the history of robots? Those questions are good enough to begin our research. So let’s get started. I’ll do the research and write. You get to read and follow along. My weapon of choice will be DuckDuckGo.com as search engine.

Where did the name robot come from?

My first question to Duck Duck Go is, “Where do robots come from?” Now I know from reading and college the first robots were automatons built in the Renaissance, at the least. Probably the idea of an automated machine goes back further. And there are devices like the Greek Antikythera mechanism which is an analog (non-digital) computer from the first century BCE. It’s also possible Chinese and other civilizations built similar stuff. For example, Aztec calendars used for calculations.

So I’m skeptical of the first result on Duck Duck Go, a link to an io9 article about the first use of the word robot, on January 25, 1921. Apparently the Czech playwright Karl Capek premiered his play R.U.R. in Prague on that date. Capek’s play apparently was the first to give the world a glimpse of a world conquered by machines. It was a thinly veiled critique of technocracy and capitalist greed (nothing changes, does it?). And the play was performed through Europe and the United States. Robot the word comes from the Czech word robota which translates to labor or servitude or slave.

Clearly I started out confused between objects that we could call robots, which go back thousands of years, and the first use of the word robot.

Given the article is from io9, which is happily free to wallow in the facts, one gory detail is a scene from the play where a robot girl tells a human girl that she will cease to move after they cut her open. Hey, thanks for the heads up. Also interesting, Capek’s robots in his play are less metal machines and more biological machines. Less Lost in Space and more Blade Runner.

The rest of the io9 summary of the play sounds lovely. It read like a mashup of Dr. Who, Star Trek, Wall-E, Aliens, Twilight Zone, and Blade Runner. It also struck a chord with audiences who had lived through the senseless butchery of World War I, as well as the displacement of workers from the industrial revolution in the decades before.

Other results from Duck Duck Go also pointed to Capek’s play. So I appreciated one link tucked in with all the automated search results, a painting someone did to answer a question their kids asked, “Where do baby robots come from?” You can buy a print on Etsy, too. Bonus points to them because their Etsy prints include Dr. Who inspired prints. Link below, as always.

What is a robot? Do robots have to have brains?

When I asked Duck Duck Go, “What is a robot?”, I got a link to Wikipedia with a thoughtful essay on all the qualities of robots you never thought about. For example, I forgot the TV show Knight Rider had a car which was a robot, KITT, short for Knight Industries Two Thousand. Wikipedia classifies KITT as an artificially intelligent electronic computer in a robotic automobile. Which clearly led to Transformers, even more neat robotic automobiles.

The article in Wikipedia also cites several dictionaries to define robot. A robot is any machine that replaces human effort. So a wheelbarrow is a kind of robot? Perhaps in the same way your smart phone is a robot: it replaces or supplements human effort.

We also learn in this Wikipedia article that R.U.R., from Capek’s play which introduced the word robot, is an acronym for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Apparently, it is the company that creates and sells robots in the play which then gruesomely try to replace humans. Also, the article cites Capek’s brother as the person who coined the term robot.

So, overall, the article on Wikipedia is exhaustive. There are so many kinds of robots to describe. Some like the Cheeta look scary. Others like the Roomba look possibly annoying.

The article also hints at an answer to whether or not robots must have a brain, or cognitive function, the ability to make decisions out of free will based on circumstances and possible actions. You know, what we do all day when we get dressed, eat, or decide whether or not to play on the computer. It appears you can be a robot without the ability to think.

I did find one other possibly useful attempt to describe the difference between robots and machines. It’s a page on Squidoo, a publishing platform and community. The author claims robots do not kill people. And most robots do not have legs. They’re not androids or human-like. So the author would say my wheelbarrow analogy is wrong: it’s a machine, a tool. He also says computers are not robots unless they’re automated. But spell-check is a software robot because it takes on drudge work otherwise done by humans. That’s an interesting idea.

Another Duck Duck Go search result lead me to a type of robot I’ve encountered for years, a WWW robot. It’s software that crawls site by site across the internet to index page after page of websites. Most often search engines send out these software robots to request pages from websites then process the pages found while following links on each page to process more pages. But there are some bots used for research, as well as to do bad things like harvest email addresses for sale to spammers.

The Wikipedia article about robots also hints at the answer to the next question, “What is a Bot?” Both are robots but one is hardware, the other software.

What is a Bot?

Next, I asked Duck Duck Go, “What is a Bot?” While bots and robots both do the same thing, repetitive tasks human would do otherwise, bots are software and robots are mechanical. That’s if you believe the Wikipedia article on bots. So the WWW robot I’ve seen online for years actually is a bot. The article also defines bots as software that uses the internet to perform repetitive tasks.

That squares up with the articles in this issue about Twitter bots. Yet is is broad enough to include software used to crawl websites.

The bot article also describes the software tools used to make bots work, for example, instant messaging (IM) and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) which is an ancient chat protocol for interactive text communication. The article also describes how bots can be used for evil, as in spambots and botnets. Spambots are software used to send email spam relentlessly while botnets are computers connected to the internet that are hijacked with spambots which send spam. Botnets actually are rented out. And, unfortunately, botnets use personal computers where people either don’t upgrade their software or they click on links which load spambots and other malicious software on to their computer.

But I digress.

What is the History of Robots?

Also interesting, the Wikipedia article about robots describes the history of automata I cited up above. Da Vinci built automated machines we might call robots today. And the Greeks built devices to help them solve problems. The Japanese in the 1600s to 1800s built complex animal and human-like automatons. The Chinese as early as the third century ACE had mechanical engineers and automated devices.

It also mentions puppets which, when you think about it, would be natural start point for robots. Why not replace your hand or sticks used to control a puppet with mechanical parts, would that work? Puppets have been around for thousands and thousands of years.

So it appears robots in some form have been with human beings going back thousands of years.

I also did some research on the Antikytheria mechanism which turned up a great article about ancient Greek inventions. Apparently they invented the alarm clock, odometer, central heating, thermometers, and maps. Perhaps the Chinese would debate the latter invention. Regardless, the article says Pluto invented the alarm clock (isn’t Pluto a dog owned by Disney, as well as a demoted planet?) but the illustration of the invention says Plato. Which perhaps makes more sense because Disney didn’t exist when Plato lived.

Why Robots?

My last search query on Duck Duck Go was, “Why do people like robots?” Which yielded an amusing top result, “Why do Aquarius people act like robots?” The sponsored link also is funny, ad for a book called, How to Like People. Apparently my question is anti-social, perhaps sociopathic.

I had to look it up but people born between January 20 and February 18 are born under the astrological sign of Aquarius. Apparently, they are very independent and any attempt to hold them down will cause them to flee. As the search excerpt from the first result put it, they also have problems with brothers and sisters:

Ok I don’t know why but most Aquarius people act like robots (my older sister included, as she’s one, and it’s kind’ve creepy. They also pop up out of nowhere at random times of day & when they talk to you a lot of the time they sound uneasy.

See? This is why we go on the internet. You learn stuff you did not know.

The other search results were equally fascination but in a more intellectual way. There was a Quora result debating why we build robots to look like us. And a NASA article comparing human qualities with robot qualities. Humans bleed, cry, and have feelings which robots cannot.

There’s also an article from the IEEE, the industry group for engineers, which argues people should design robots to look like humans instead of machines. Why? Because humans are brilliant, beautiful, compassionate, loveable, and capable of love. Then asks don’t we want robots with the same capabilities? Except robots don’t bleed or die (at least not easily) and they might go crazy like Capek’s play R.U.R. and kill us all.

The better argument in the IEEE article is pushing boundaries of science leads to discoveries we might not make otherwise. Good point. Except people like me are skeptical of the idea all scientific advancement is good for us and unstoppable. The latter point, in particular, surrenders our free will to decide how to use robots, in this case. The article also turns out to be written by someone whose company, RoboKind, builds expressive robot faces, which I find interesting.


Well, time is up. It’s been almost two hours of deep research, reading, writing, and playing around. I know more about robots and bots than at the start. Hopefully you do, too!

Learn More

Antikythera Mechanism


Where Do Robots Come From?


What is a Robot?


What is a Bot?


Why Robots?

http://www.quora.com/Why-do-humans-want-to-make-robots-that-look-like-humans (registration required)

Why Do Aquarius People Act Like Robots?


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