Robot: Making A Mechanical Mind

A mind we create isn’t necessarily a mind we can control.

cartoonish and emoji-like square gray robot head with yellow ears and grimmacing face against a wine-colored paper-textured background
Credit: Kay Wasil

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In 1920, a Czech writer was stumped. He’d written a play about a future where machines that looked like people do our bidding. They were the perfect workers: obedient, hard working, and never demanded a pay raise. But what was the writer to call these marvelous machines? There wasn’t yet a word for this type of creation. 

He had initially chosen labori, from the Latin for labor, but something about the word wasn’t quite right. It seemed…stiff, bookish. This play wasn’t just about machines who labored. It was about machines we exploited, relentlessly. And eventually, the writer  landed on a word that fit better  robot

Robot came from an old Czech word for drudgery and servitude. Though in his play – like so very many robo-dystopias to come – the writer showed that a mind we create to serve us isn’t necessarily a mind we can control.

Read a transcript of this episode here.

Here’s the video of dancing robots mentioned in this episode:

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

See more drawings and diagrams inThe Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Ismail al-Jazari.

Check out some old footage of Unimate, the first worker robot.

Listen to a radio segment on the origin of the word robot.


This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Julia Pistell, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. We had sound design and mastering from Chris Wood. Our music was composed by D Peterschmidt. Thank you to Craig Cravens, senior lecturer at Indiana University, for helping us with research about Karel Capek. We had fact checking help from Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer.

This season of Science Diction is sponsored by Audible.

Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is the former senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

About Julia Pistell

Julia Pistell is a writer, actor, and public relations expert. She’s also a host of the podcast Literary Disco.

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