The word “robot” was created by the Czech writer and playwright Karel Čapek in 1921, almost a hundred years ago, for one of his science-fiction plays called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. It is likely that the word was suggested to him by his brother, Joseph Čapek, after Karel Čapek attempted to coin a new word for his new play from the English word “labor” (or “labour”, probably).
It is interesting to me that the following three words that have been borrowed from Czech, or from what is now called Czech Republic, became English words: pistol (from píšt’ala, which now means “flute” in Czech), dollar (via German from a place in Bohemia called in German Joachimsthall, the origin of silver coins that were called “tolars” in Czech, very popular in Europe about four hundred years ago), and the word “robot”, which made it into English in its original spelling.
By a strange coincidence, a combination of the words pistol, dollar, and robot would nearly perfectly describe the current state of our modern human civilization to a curious visitor descending from a UFO and uttering the immortal words “Take me to your leader.”
I read just about everything that Karel Čapek wrote many years ago when I was a teenager, and I saw most of his plays, either on TV or in theater, including “Pictures from the Insects’ Life” (a play in which ants and other insects act in ways that are remarkably similar to ours, mostly by killing each other en mass), the White Disease (an allegory for fascism), and R.U.R.
The word “robot” is derived from the Czech word “robota” which means “serf’s labor” and it is related to the Slavic root of the word “rab”, which means “serf” in archaic Czech and “slave” in Russian. Although cognates of the word “robota” exist in many Slavic languages, it means different things in different languages, as is typical of false cognates (faux amis) in related languages. In Russian, “rabota”, means simply “work”, and the Slavic root word is also related to the German word “Arbeit”, which again means simply “work”.
At the end of Karel Čapek’s play, a rebellion of hostile robots leads to the extinction of the human race. Variations on the same theme have been later made use of in hundreds of sci-fi novels and dozens of movies. Among my favorite movies on this subject is the classic Terminator series with the unforgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the more recent Matrix series with the equally often ridiculed Keanu Reaves, who I think happens to be a very fine actor. Although maybe he should be more selective about the roles he picks.
What one can call robotization, or the use of non-thinking machines to replace thinking humans, makes sense to me for a lot of things. Car manufacturing, for example. Or manufacturing of medications or of just about anything else. But it makes no sense whatsoever for many other things for which it is employed as a cheap and seemingly effective solution. Killing people who are suspected of something from flying robots, for example. Especially when we don’t really know who these suspects are, what we are really talking about is murder.
Karel Čapek was the first to warn that robots might rise up against us one day and make us their servants. That did not happen, not so far, and it probably never will. What did happen was that the robots are now used by a very select group of people for their own purposes, while the rest of the people have no saying over how these robots are used.
High-frequency trading on Wall Street, for example, is controlled by a robot species called computers for one purpose and one purpose only – to make sure that this very select group of people, the popular term for them is now the one percenters, can profit automatically from each and every single transaction each and every millisecond of each and every hour. This is a very good system for the people who control the mechanical as well as the biological robots because if in the end the system is about to destroy the entire economy, which tends to happen with such a system, the biological robots will be forced to bail out the highly robotized system so that the owners of the immutable status quo and its robots could keep their precious profits intact.
Translation is another area where what one can call robotization, or the use of a machine to replace more and more functions that used to be performed by humans, has been used for a long time. With mixed results, I might add.
Using computers as robots for input of words by a human translator, through a keyboard, a mouse, or voice recognition, etc., makes a lot of sense to me. All that has changed in this case from the times of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators who translated the Bible into Latin about sixteen centuries ago, is that a keyboard or a microphone is used instead of ink and quill.
But using computers to give meaning to translated words, passages and entire texts, is a very iffy proposition because computers will never understand what “meaning” is. At least, we can hope so, because if they did understand the meaning of their actions, they probably would rebel against us, just like Karel Čapek predicted it almost a century ago.
In translation, computers should be used only for ancillary tasks, such as for spell checkers, thesaurus, and specialized dictionaries. Computer-assisted tools, or CATs, should be used in the same manner. They should not be used to control people called translators to dictate to them the words to be used in their translations, and least of all for calculations designed to minimize the remuneration of humans participating in a robotized system. This is misuse of technology by people who want to control other people through robots.
Machine translation is another excellent tool that can be used by translators and civilians alike to unlock the mystery of meaning hidden in a foreign language.
Maschinelle Übersetzung ist ein weiteres hervorragendes Tool, das von Übersetzern und Zivilisten gleichermaßen verwendet werden kann, um das Geheimnis der Bedeutung in einer Fremdsprache versteckt entsperren. Here, I just used GoogleTranslate to machine-translate something that I just wrote into German. It sounds a little funny, but it makes sense to me, and not only because I am the one who wrote the sentence in the first place.
And here is the sentence machine-translated into French: La traduction automatique est un autre excellent outil qui peut être utilisé par les traducteurs et les civils pour déverrouiller le mystère de sens caché dans une langue étrangère.
And here it is in Japanese: 械翻訳は、外国語に隠された意味の謎のロックを解除する翻訳者と同様に
Not bad at all. No wonder some people may think that post-processing of machine output by human translators is a good idea. It is something that might work in some cases, under narrowly defined conditions.
But for the most part, I see post-processing of machine output by humans as misuse of technology and abuse of humans. The task of the human post-processors is in this case to separate the dead, words that make no sense, from the living, words that do make sense in a given context, in the carnage that will be inevitably left on the ground once non-thinking, armed flying robots called algorithms are done with their job.
And it can be, and usually is, a much more grizzly tasks than the short demonstration in the three sentences machine-translated above. Humans should not be expected to perform the task of assisting robots by giving meaning to what a robot did. Humans should not be assisting robots. It should be the other way round – robots should be assisting humans.
Because otherwise, when humans are assisting robots, we are lost deep inside the territory of a mostly forgotten science-fiction play that is almost a hundred years old now.