And so has been trying since the origins of what we know as civilization. There were attempts at creating robots in ancient China, Egypt and Greece. At the risk of being tediously monothematic, it surely is an understatement to say that 2016 was the Year of the Robot. Men are losing their jobs to robots, as The New York Times recently reported, and are at a loss as to how to respond.
Yet it wasn’t until the 20th century that writers, then scientists first conceived what would be the robots as we know them today. Walking boxes, metal creatures that had lights for eyes and hooks for hands and spoke in an electronic monotone were just cartoonish precursors of today’s real ones.
Most of our contemporary robots are not anthropomorphic automatons. How many of you bump into R2D2 or ASIMO in the streets? Yet we are surrounded by them: vacuum cleaners, translation software, mechanical arms at auto assembly plants, chess players, and, among countless other applications, the self-driving cars.
These modern robots are arms without bodies, eyes without heads, and all of them brains without feelings. They are, as their name says, “robots”, a word of Church Slavonic origin that in different Slavic languages, from Bulgarian to Russian, means “work,” “serf,” “worker,” “hard work,” and related concepts.
The word was coined by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R. In Čapek’s work, a robot was indeed an automaton. (Later he attributed the invention of the term to his brother, Josef).
While Čapek’s is now largely forgotten and his works unread, the name that he or his brother coined have come to define an era. And quite fittingly so. Imbibed in the positivism of the 19th century that measures man as a function of labor and production, men in the 20th century – the bloodiest in History, in which totalitarian regimes reduced men to simply an economic unit, devoid of the transcendence that life brings on every sentient creature, from a tree to an animal – were reduced to, fundamentally, economic units. Hence, a creature made in the image and likeness of the 20th century man would be a working machine.
It may not be coincidence that the most remote Proto-Indo-European stem of the Slavic word “robot” seems to have been “horbh,” or “orphan.” The term evolved into “work” by way of later senses that came to mean “hardship” and “loneliness.”
We wished this Christmas the scientists that are populating the workplace with robots will draw inspiration from the best robot ever, made by Geppetto, a carpenter from Florence. Well, he wasn’t really a robot because he didn’t work hard (or at all), and he lied a lot, too. But Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that wanted to become a real boy, is dear to us all.
And may they be also inspired by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who in 16th century Prague created the most accomplished Golem yet, the clay creatures of Jewish lore, and which Borges immortalized in his homonymous poem:
The rabbi explained to it the universe
“This is my foot, this is yours, this the rope.”
And after years got the perverse creature
To sweep the synagogue, well or badly.
The rabbi observed it with tenderness
and with some horror. “How” (he asked)
“could I beget this sorry son
and abandon inaction, wherein sanity lies?”
In the hour of anguish and lack of light,
his eyes on his Golem would rest.
Who will tell us the things God felt
when looking at his rabbi in Prague?
As always, poetry and literature have preceded science by centuries. May 2017 be the year when the invention of Rabbi Loew will come to fruition. And let us hope will have Pinocchio among us, too. We forgive him all his lies. Perhaps he can even tell us the truth.