Maybe Should Stop Calling Them Robots

The recent pandemic has shown that robots are still far away from taking away some of the heavy burdens of health workers, let alone taking over the world. It is hilarious to watch them fall over or take football penalty shootouts with Obama4, but deep down, we feel uneasy for they could supplant us.

But life will go on, and these hesitations will be no obstacle to the massive booming of robotics in many fields, like production, mobility, logistics, medicine, health services, agriculture, you name it. A life alongside robots is inevitable. But one could also imagine that they will look after us when we are sick or elderly. Or do all kinds of dangerous (remember pandemic?), dirty or heavy in our stead.

I feel uneasy about the terminology we use to define these “machines” or “craftwork” – for we craft them in the image of nature. What is a “robot”?

The word robot derives from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor, which was derived from the Proto-Slavic *orbota, meaning hard work or slavery.

In 1920, Karel Čapek introduced the word robot to the world in his play1 called Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), in which artificial organic humanoid robots were built, and subsequently became dissatisfied, leading to a robot revolution and ultimately the birth of a new robot society.

Well, from this reference point, it is not very difficult to jump to Terminator’s anti-life machines.  But what makes a machine a robot is not very clear. For example, an autonomous agricultural tractor could be called a robot or a self-navigating drone to drop your parcel: an autonomous, intelligent, and physically embodied machine.

We have numerous mechanical and philosophical ancestors to robots.

Ancient Chinese texts tell the story of a mechanical man presented to King Mu of Zhou (1023–957 BCE) by the ‘artificer’ Yan Shi. King Solomon, who reigned from 970 to 931 BCE, was said to have had a golden lion that raised afoot to help him to his throne and a mechanical eagle that placed his crown upon his head. Hero of Alexandria (10–70 CE) wrote an entire book about his automaton inventions and how hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanics could be used.

Another important -maybe the most significant ancestor of robotics is Al-Jazari, the great engineer and genius in science history. Al-Jazari made technological designs for more than fifty machines and devices. Not only designed but produced and operated these machines. He collected a significant portion of these 13th-century machines in this book Kitab-ul Hiyal with the request of Artuqid ruler Nasireddin Mahmud (1200-1222).

Once, he mentions his humanoid robot as “Ruhani” which refers to a “mechanism with soul.” This brings me neatly to the very foundations of scientific philosophy.

Aristotle often raises methodological questions about how inquiry (ζητήσις) into nature should proceed if it is to result in scientific knowledge (ἐπιστήμη). For example, in the introduction to the Parts of Animals, he asks whether the natural philosopher should inquire into nature the same way the mathematical astronomer inquires into celestial movement or whether she should inquire as one would when inquiring into the production of an artifact.2

For Aristotle, nature is the ultimate source of inspiration for the curious, or scientist in this case. Not only humanoids as in Asimo, or animals like the mildly-scary headless robotic dog but also microorganisms.

Targeting medical treatment to an ailing body part is a practice as old as medicine itself. A Band-Aid is placed on a skinned knee. Drops go into itchy eyes. A broken arm goes into a cast.

But often, what ails us is inside the body and is not so easy to reach. In such cases, a treatment like surgery or chemotherapy might be called for. A pair of researchers in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science are working on an entirely new form of treatment — microrobots that can deliver drugs to specific spots inside the body while being monitored and controlled from outside the body.

“The microrobot concept is really cool because you can get micromachinery right to where you need it,” says Lihong Wang, Caltech’s Bren Professor of Medical Engineering and Electrical Engineering. “It could be drug delivery or a predesigned microsurgery.”3

I think the works of Aristotle and Al-JAzari shed some more light on how we need to perceive. Life side-by-side robots (or Ruhanis). Robots will need human assistance in the beginning. They will obtain the ability “to learn”, navigate, write codes, repair themselves, or even decide to kill as in the case of autonomous cars.

But they can be great co-workers when you need them. Humans can do and have so much more with fewer resources and spare much more time for themselves. And maybe, once in history, humanity can outleap themselves and focus on what makes life more beautiful.

A craftwork to share some much of our lives with, and will probably have the most profound effect on us in our history. One could propose that we’re faced with a new species5. 

I recommend that we start with chucking out the word “robot.”


  2. “Art and Nature in Aristotle’s Physics”, Sean Coughin, Universitad zu Berlin
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