Can using the wrong word cripple the future of embodied AI?

The word ‘robot’ is from the Slavic robota, meaning forced laborer. It was originally coined to refer to the serfs of 19th century eastern Europe.

The term was then introduced into the English language in the 1920s via an eastern European play about artificial people, living flesh and blood creatures more reminiscent of Bladerunner‘s androids than Will Smith’s iRobot — or even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.

No surprises, given how popular media has continued to treat the theme, the initially happy soulless robota rise up and wipe out the human race.

Pivotal Plot Points to keep in mind, when trying to understand the play’s instant global popularity, include the Russian Revolution of 1917 and America’s first Red Scare (1917-1920).

By 1923 the play had been translated into 30 languages.

Meanwhile, western European languages continue to use the term slave, or some variation thereof*, when speaking of any kind of forced labor.

The term slave was coined in western Europe’s first millennium (before 987) because, at the time, people sold into forced labor were typically Slavs, or eastern Europeans. This was because the church forbade the selling of Christians into forced labor and, until 987, Slavs were Pagans.

History books talk about Roman slaves, but originally, Romans referred to people sold into forced labor as servus — from which we derive the word servant. Thus Serf, Slave and Robot are all essentially the same word — except one of them is an ethnic slur.

In all three case, you buy the person and then you make them do all the dirty work until they die. Sometimes, who knows how often, you hasten their demise by not feeding them.

Even if we don’t consciously register the literal etymology, its historical application continues to haunt us via popular media and it’s limiting how we collectively imagine the potential of both AI and Robotics.

Right now Robotic innovation is over-focused on replacing people stuck doing jobs certain parties claim no one would want.

The problem appears to be that such jobs are being done badly because they’re poorly paid and abusive. Common examples include sex workers and people who take care of children and the elderly. This is an economics problem, not an HR problem. There’s no sense in confounding 2018 with 1918. We need to stop thinking about robots in terms of doing jobs that humans don’t want to do (forced labor) and instead start thinking of robots in terms of things that humans couldn’t possibly do.

So, for example, what if our cities and urban centers had underground artificially intelligent root systems to accommodate next generation waste management, extreme weather management, Web 3.0 telecom networks, automated transportation systems and our new energy grids?

Count on it: this is where our distributed grid level liquid batteries are going to live.

In South Africa, we have mines with networks of tunnels that reach up to 4 kilometers down (almost 2.5 miles). That’s lots of room to do lots of interesting things in 3 dimensions.

Then we could devote the top layer of our planet’s surface to carbon sequestration.

So many problems would get solved so quickly.

* e.g., esclave in French, schiavo in Italian, slaff in Dutch, etc etc etc. The word serf was derived from the Latin servus (“slave”) via medieval French.

Rethinking Robots