The first reference to "robots" in English was in 1923, in the translation of a 1921 play written by Czech playwright Karel Capek. The name comes from the Czech word "robota" which means "servitude or forced labour".
The fictitious robots in this play were made from a manufactured flesh-like material and were very human-like (and, in fact, staged a very human-like rebellion at the end of the play, which seems to have made a mockery of their name!)
Today, robots – both in fiction and in real life – take on a wide variety of forms from the vaguely human-like (but plastic) robots used to help teach autistic children about social interactions, to the purely minimalist and mechanical such as the arms on the trucks that empty our rubbish bins, and absolutely everything in between.
They can be operated manually such as robots used in "keyhole" surgery; totally programmed beforehand such as those used to spray-paint cars or operate the Mars rovers; or have some degree of human on-the-spot control or intervention such as the toy "drones" that drive grandparents crazy on Christmas day when the kids are zooming them all around the lounge room.
Robots in film and literature
The science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, famously stated the "Three Laws of Robotics" in a short story in 1942. These are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Since then, many science fiction stories and films have featured robots of one form or another, and some have certainly violated those laws by harming humans. Since your list of familiar "evil" robots may not be the same mine, I urge you to spend a minute thinking about those you remember best.
Of course, there have also been many benign, friendly or helpful robots represented in literature and film too. I can't resist mentioning my all-time favourite, Marvin the paranoid android from Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", with a (fictitious) mind as big as a planet.
Robots a positive influence on our economy
But let's get back to the modern real world. In a recent review of industrial robots reported in "Business Spectator", covering many industries and several countries between 1993 and 2007, the researchers concluded "we find that industrial robots increased total factor productivity and wages." They also found no overall reduction in employment, although there was a small effect on low-skilled jobs. In fact, they found that more than one-tenth of the growth of GDP during that period was due to increased productivity due to the introduction of robots.
Some recent and future developments
Robots are proving to be most useful in dangerous situations.
After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, engineers and researchers designed a robot named "Octopus" with four arms and four crawlers. This huge machine can be programmed to clean up the rubble and make an area safe again without danger to human workers who could be crushed by falling or unstable debris. The robot can also be fitted with different tools, for example to cut through concrete or metal, and also a device that can remove radioactive waste safely.
And then there is the danger on the roads. More people die in road accidents than almost any other single cause of death in our modern society, and the vast majority of these are caused driver error. To help us be safer on the road, we are already used to cars that have cruise control (NOT to be used on wet roads); sensors that beep if we reverse too close to an object; bells that ting ting ting if we forget our seat-belts; and even self-parking capabilities.
Huge driverless trucks are already used in the open-cut mining industry, and have proved to be more safe and reliable than similar human-driven machines. Now a driverless car has made a record by driving 3,400 miles (5,472 km) in the USA, from San Francisco to New York City.
The car drove itself 99% of the time. The driver intervened one time because of the hand-signals of a policeman and another time to weave around a construction site. One positive was that the car always obeyed the speed limits, even when other cars didn't (which caused some annoyance to the other drivers).
Some of the problems noted were inconsistent road markings, making it difficult for the car to automatically interpret where lanes were; the close proximity of large trucks, and the cameras being less efficient in bright sunlight or rainy weather. The company (Delphi) has collected three terabytes of data about these and other issues (about 30% of the printed material in the Library of Congress), and will work to improve all the systems and build upon those that worked well.
Delphi's chief technology office, Jeff Owens, commented: "This technology has come so far. It's going to make such a difference in the accident statistics."
Whatever we feel about robots emotionally, they are here to stay. We cannot put that Genie back in the bottle. The need for ongoing technology and art is anticipated in the Bible. Exodus chapter 31 verses 1-5 states: "The Lord said to Moses, 'See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft' ".
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html