robotics

Both “cyberspace” and “robotics” are neologisms by influential Science-Fiction writers. Both neologisms in turn are based on neologisms, too. For “cyberspace” William Gibson preyed on Norbert Wiener‘s concept of “cybernetics”, for “robotics” Isaac Asimov preyed on writer Karel Capek‘s “robot,” when he wrote this sentence: “Compare Speedy with the type of robot they must have had back in 2005. But then, advances in robotics these days were tremendous.” (Asimov 1995b [1942]: 257)
 

Why I am writing about this here, is the fact that both neologisms and their contexts, the stories within which they appeared, somehow developed into self-fulfilling prophecies, shaping the things to come [allusion intended, I will dwell on H. G. Wells some time later]. Here are Asimov’s own thoughts:
 

As time went by, I made other discoveries that delighted me. I found, for instance, that when I used the word ‘robotics’ to describe the study of robots, I was not using a word that already existed but had invented a word that had never been used before. (That was in my story ‘Runaround’ in 1942.)
 

The word has now come into general use. There are journals and books with the word in the title and it is generally known in the field that I invented the term. Don’t think I’m not proud of that. There are not mayn people who have coined a useful scientific term, and although I did it unknowingly, I have no intention of letting anyone in the world forget it. […]
 

When I wrote my robot stories I had no thought that robots would come into existence in my lifetime. In fact, I was certain they would not, and would have wagered vast sums that they would not. (At least, I would have wagered 15 cents, which is my betting limit on sure things.)
 

Yet here I am, forty-three years after I wrote my first robot story, and we do have robots. Indeed, we do. What’s more, they are what I envisaged them to be ina away—industrial robots, created by engineers to do specific jobs and with safety features built in. […]
 

One thing we can be sure of. Robots are changing the world and driving it in directions we cannot clearly foresee.
 

Where are these robots-in-reality coming from? The most important single source is a firm called Unimation, Inc., of Danbury, Connecticut. It is the leading manufacturer of industrial robots and is responsible for perhaps one third of all robots that have been installed. The president of the firm is Joseph F. Engelberger, who founded it in the late 1950s because he was so interested in robots that he decided to make their production his life work.
 

But how in the world did he become so interested in robots so early in the game? According to his own words, he grew interested in robots in the 1940s when he was a physics-major at Columbia University, reading the robot stories of his fellow Colimbian Isaac Asimov.
 

My goodness!
 

You know, I didn’t write my robot stories with much in the way of ambition back in those old, old days. All I wanted was to sell them to the magazines in order to earn a few hundred dollars to help pay my college tuition—and to see my name in print besides.
 

If I had been writing in any other field of literature, that’s all I would have attained. But because I was writing science fiction, and only because I was writing science fiction, I—without knowing it—was starting a chain of events that is changing the face of the world. (Asimov 1995a: 10-12) [bold typeset emphasis mine]

Quite self-confident, alas George Devol, the pioneer engineer at Unimation, credited with being the inventor of the first industrial robot, “insists he has never read a science fiction book in his life nor seen a science fiction movie.”
 

ASIMOV, ISAAC (1920-1992). 1995a. “Introduction,” in The complete robot: The definitive collection of robot stories by Isaac Asimov, pp. 9-12. London: Voyager, HarperCollins.
 

ASIMOV, ISAAC (1920-1992). 1995b [1942]. “Runaround,” in The complete robot: The definitive collection of robot stories by Isaac Asimov, pp. 257-279. London: Voyager, HarperCollins.
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