How do you tell a robot from an android?

Words for artificial humans

The science fiction (sci-fi) genre has created many near-human creatures. There is a whole vocabulary that has grown to describe human-like things that are not humans: robots, androids, cyborgs, humanoids, and many more.

But researching these sci-fi words I found that many of them and the artificial creatures they describe have been around for much longer than the literature we know as science fiction. The magical creation of humans from inanimate objects has a long history. The animation of statues, the raising of the dead (refer to Understanding Zombies) and the creation of artificial humans has been described throughout history. However, it is only the creation of humans by “science” that interests us here.

Perhaps the most famous artificially-created human in literature is Victor Frankenstein’s monster. It has been suggested that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 book, Frankenstein, is the first science fiction novel because it questions the morality of the pursuit of science. It is fitting that it deals with the creation of an artificial human. Constructed from the body parts of corpses would the monster now be considered an android—a biological life-form created by science?

Is Frankenstein an android?

Frankensteins monster is an androidThe word android has been around for much longer than Frankenstein and was probably known to Shelley although she did not use it in the book. Saint Albertus Magnus is said to have created an android in the 13th century. Mary Shelley included the works of Albertus Magnus on Victor Frankenstein’s reading list so she obviously understood the connection. Albertus Magnus is said to have created a mechanical brass head that would answer any question it was asked. This was an early automaton.

Automatons are mechanical humans

Automaton has been used to describe self-operating machines since 1611. Automaton is sometimes used to describe a robot but its broader meaning includes mechanical toys, moving astronomical models and mechanical musicians. It has the additional meaning of describing humans that move or act in a mechanical way.

Robots, robotics and industrialisation

Robot entered the English language in the early twentieth century. It comes, not from Latin or Greek as so many of our technical words do, but from Czech. The word, robot, was first introduced into English through the translated work of Czech playwright, Karel Čapek, in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which premiered in Prague in 1921 and, in translated form, in London in 1923. The play describes a factory that makes artificial people called robots. Robota, the Slavic word, means work, labor, drudgery or serf labor.

So we can see from this that when robot was introduced it did not have the same meaning that it does now. It was then an artificial biological person (ie what we call an android).

The first modern use of the word, robot

Captain Future CoverThe first modern use of the word, robot, may have been in Jack Williamson’s story The Cometeers (1936 in the Astounding Magazine and then in a book version in 1950). The distinction between mechanical robots and organic androids was popularized by Edmond Hamilton in his Captain Future series a few years later, and had become a common discussion point by 1958.

In the 1930s mechanical robots where used by Westinghouse to promote their products. They first created Willie Vocalite who talked and smoked cigarettes. Then they exhibited Electro, a robot man, and Sparko, his robot dog at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Robots soon became the heroes of science fiction. The most famous robot-writer, Isaac Asimov (author of I, Robot), coined the word robotics in 1941 to mimic engineering terms such as electrics and mechanics. He later developed the famous Three Laws of Robotics in 1968 describing how mechanical men where to relate to humans.

Cover of Isaac Asimov's book I, RobotUsage in real science has cemented robot into the mechanical definition—an industrial robot is defined by international standards as:

… an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.

Droid—trademarked R2-D2 and C-3PO

As we have seen the meanings of android and robot have diverged significantly from their origins in English. An android has become an artificial human created from biological materials whereas a robot has become a mechanical machine that can do the work of man.

R2_D2 and C3PO are droids (trademarked name by George Lucas)However, just to make things complicated a droid, which is an abbreviated form of android, is used to describe non-human-looking robots. Droid is a word coined in 1977 by George Lucas (and trademarked) and used in the Star Wars films. R2-D2 and C-3PO are astromech and protocol droids respectively. The name R2-D2 is claimed to be taken from a sound recordist abbreviating Reel 2-Dialogue 2 and C3 supposedly the map location of a post office, PO, in Lucas’s home town.

Cyborg is a cybernetic organism

But what about cyborgs, what are they? The Webster Dictionary defines a cyborg as a hypothetical human modified for life in a hostile or alien environment by the substitution of artificial organs and other body parts. Cyborg is a portmanteau word formed as an abbreviation of cybernetic organism. It is first recorded in the New York Times in May 1960.

Patrick Stewart captured by the Borg in Star Trek New GenerationA cyborg is essentially a man-machine system in which the control mechanisms of the human portion are modified externally by drugs or regulatory devices so that the being can live in an environment different from the normal one. A cyborg usually starts out as a human but then is biologically or mechanically modified (Star Trek: The Next Generation has as its arch-villains the Borg a cybernetic race of aliens).

Cybernetics is as old as Plato

Cybernetics is derived from kybernetes, the Greek word for a navigator or steersman. It means the communication and control of systems. The Latin word,  gubernator, is derived from it  (the English governor is based on it). Cybernetic is a very old word first used by Plato in an allegorical sense to mean the steering or governance of a community.

Apart from cyborgs, cybernetics gives us the prefix cyber, which is used both as an artificial human term and also to give a counter-culture sense to technology terms. Examples include the cybermen from Dr Who and cyberpunk a SciFi sub-genre dealing with a high-tech but malfunctioning society (Max Headroom being an early spokesperson).

Bionic person

But what about a bionic person? Bionic relates to the use of electrically-operated artificial body parts. Bionic is an adjective that describes the artificial body parts or the person using them. A bionic person is essentially a cyborg. The 6 Million Dollar Man was a 1970s science fiction program with a returned astronaut who has super strength, speed and vision from bionic parts.Max Headroom

Humanoid and the human family

Humanoid is a common word used to describe things that look like humans but are not. It is a borrowing from anthropology. Humanoid is a hybrid word from both Latin humanus meaning human and the Greek oeides meaning likeness. The meaning of humanoid is almost a direct synonym for humanlike. It is a word perhaps created in error when the more correct form was hominid, at that time meaning of the family of humans and their ancestors.

However, the noun, humanoid, in popular writing more often refers to human-like extraterrestrials (which are always the most enlightened). But as an adjective it is used to differentiate humanoid robots that look like humans to those non-human looking, or “non-humaniform” robots.

Bots or software robots

Software robots, referred to as bots, meaning Internet bots, web robots, or even WWW robots, are software applications that run automated tasks on the Internet. These bots perform simple and repetitive tasks at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human. The most common example is a web spider an automated script that repeatedly fetches, analyses and files information from web servers.

Replicant retiring

Rutger Hauer plays the replicant, Roy Batty, in BladerunnerFans of Blade Runner, considered one of the best sc-fi films of all time, will recognise the word replicant for the super-human androids that had to be tracked down and “retired” (killed) by Deckard, the lead character. Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which inspired Blade Runner used the term android (andy), but director, Ridley Scott, wanted something different. The screenwriter’s daughter who was studying microbiology suggested the term “replicating” from cells duplicating during cloning, which in turn gave replicant.

Mechanoid is a human-like robot

A mechanoid is a robot that is designed to look and act like a human. They are common in science fiction and in reality. Bust as always the genre subverts the vocabulary, in the sic-fi program, Dr Who, there is a group of spherical robots, The Mechonoids, created to serve humans.

Simulants are biomechanical mechanoids

One of my favourite sci-fi programs, Red Dwarf, has its own version of androids or cyborgs (along with their own robot, Krypton, pictured). According to the Red Dwarf database, simulants are based on similar technology to mechanoids but contain biomechanical parts which make them more human (except for their deranged and violent psychoses). They travel the universe looking for victims.

But whatever the names of the artificial human machines that we create in fiction and in laboratories there is no doubt that we are fascinated by these representations of ourselves. The future will tell us whether we  create Frankensteins, protectors or our nemeses.