John W. Campbell wrote an editorial in the October 1939 Astounding in which he talked about his future vision of robots. By late 1939, robots were already a growing trope of science fiction and within the next year, Isaac Asimov would begin revolutionizing that trope with the first of his Robot stories, giving us the vision of robots that we have today. Campbell, in this editorial, argued,
The world is already full of thousands of robots, working busily and intelligently on their assigned tasks. Naturally, they don’t appear manlike because a man makes a very poor instrument for any given task.
He gave as an example, “telephone switching robots” which don’t look manlike at all. I thought about telephone switches today and something inside me rebelled at the idea that a telephone switch could be considered a robot. The question Campbell was getting at, even if not explicitly stated, was: how does a robot differ from any other machine?
I batted around ideas with a friend whose office is next to mine. Obviously, a robot is a human-labor-saving device. But a computer is also a human-labor-saving device and we don’t consider our laptops, iPads and iPhones robots. I decided, therefore, that there had to be a mechanical element to a robot: moving parts made up of one or more various machines (gears, belts, levels, wheels, planes, etc.) And this mechanical element has to translate into some kind of controlled motion. Thus, an aircraft autopilot system which is controlled by computer, is still robotic because the yoke and throttle and other surface controls move.
“But what about automatic locks in a car?” my friend argued. That, too, seems to meet the criteria I’ve defined, but automatic locks don’t feel robotic. Clearly, something is lacking in my definition, but what? I considered this for several days and decided that while a robot might be a computer-controlled mechanical system involving controlled motion, there was one other element, key, which I’d left out: the influence of science fiction stories.
The earliest modern image of a robot (and the the word itself) probably comes from Karel Čapek‘s 1920 play, “R.U.R” (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The December 1938 issue of Astounding contained Lester del Rey’s classic story, “Helen O’Loy” about two men who alter an ordinary robot to have emotions. One of the men falls in love with the resulting robot and spends the rest of his life with her, and of course, she asks to be destroyed when he dies. In both the play and the story, robots are portrayed very much like humans.
del Rey’s story was unusual in part because it portrayed robots as benign. In the early days of science fiction, robots were often portrayed as evil or beserk. It is Isaac Asimov, in his Robot stories, who introduced computers into robots with his “positronic” brains. And he and Campbell corralled what a robot could do with the famous Law of Robotics, paving the way for robots that could be a boon to human society. (Of course, his novel The Caves of Steel investigated the dark side of this boon.)
Asimov’s robots stories (and later, the novels) spanned decades. They started out as simple puzzle stories with the puzzles involving the Laws of Robotics. But they evolved into rather touching pieces that danced on the borderlines of what makes a robot human. The climax of these stories was probably Asimov’s Hugo and Nebula-award winning “Bicentennial Man” (later expanded into The Positronic Man by Robert Silverberg, and made into a fairly bleh movie starring Robin Williams.)
These weren’t the only robot stories in science fiction, but Asimov’s robot stories certainly had the most influence. Many computer scientists turned to their profession because of Asimov’s stories with the result that what we see in robots today are clearly influenced by Asimov’s vision. Certainly robots like the floor cleaning Roomba is one example, with the pinnacle (so far) being Honda’s Asimo. (The name is no coincidence.) Motion pictures took these images a step further, allowing us to see on the big screen Philip K. Dick’s “replicants”; George Lucas’s “droids”; and most recently, the re-imagined Cylon’s of Battlestar Galactica.
It is this influence–this image of robots as depicted in stories like “Helen O’Loy” and “Runaround” and “Liar!” and “Bicentennial Man”–that I’d argue is the missing element to our modern definition of a robot. Thus, if asked to define what makes something a robot (as opposed to an ordinary machine or computer), I’d answer with what I’ll call:
Jamie’s Three Criteria for a Robot
- A robot must be labor-saving, performing a function that might otherwise be performed by a person and do so with better efficiency.
- A robot must be mechanical in nature and show motion; it cannot be just a computer or computer function.
- A robot must reflect the spirit of the ideas first imagined in science fiction stories; this reflection can be in form, function, or both.
The third item is perhaps the most important because it carries with it what science fiction writers have envisioned over the course of the last 90 years. It eliminates things like automatic door locks and telephone switches–which don’t seem to belong to the science-fictional realm of robots, but does include things like automatic pilot systems, house-cleaning robots, and even car assembly line robots.
I am satisfied with this definition of a robot, particularly because it pays homage to the vision and imagination of generations of science fiction writers, whose work is sometimes marginalized by our “literary” brothers and sisters. To me, it is just another example of the powerful influence that science fiction has had in the evolution of science and technology; how it has provided examples for possible avenues of investigation.
And, of course, I forgive Campbell his definition of a robot, since he was writing his comments at a time when the science-fictional notion of a robot was still in its infancy. The writers he developed, and many others had yet to add their visions and opinions to the mix.
So what is your opinion? How would you define a robot?