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Robodroid

It was Zaphod Beeblebrox who started me on this. I was listening to the tapes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the other day for about the dozenth time and heard him describe Marvin in that famous line of his as “the paranoid android”.

Now, an android in science-fiction circles is usually regarded as an artificial person, made of biological material by some process that we might call cloning, genetic engineering or biotechnology (the extent to which they can reproduce is one of the stock themes of the genre). The idea of the android clearly has close links to the medieval Jewish stories of the golem. However, the word android was first used in English in the eighteenth century to refer to an automaton in human shape (it was formed from Greek roots meaning “manlike”). There were some famous ones made about this time, including mechanical theatres complete with actors (there was one at Hellbrunn), but the first are reputed to have been created in medieval times by Roger Bacon (a talking head) and Albertus Magnus (an iron man).

Most science-fiction writers distinguish the android from the robot, which is almost always regarded as a purely mechanical device, albeit one usually in a humanoid guise, unlike the robots of industry. Think of Robby the Robot in that classic 1956 film Forbidden Planet with his metal body, clattering relays and a chest panel of flickering lights: that’s your classic robot. The origins of the term lie in Karel Capek’s play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots) first performed in Prague in 1921. The word entered the English language two years later when the play was translated and performed in London. It immediately gained a permanent place, becoming for a while something of a vogue word. But the original root word in Czech, robota, actually means “indentured labour” or “forced labour” and the robots in Capek’s play were artificial humans, or what we would now call androids (grown in vats, actually).

Sometime in the thirties, notwithstanding its origins, the new word robot took over the sense of a humanoid mechanical construct in science fiction, leaving android with that of a biological one, the complete inverse of their origins and etymologies. Android was slower to gain acceptance in the genre, perhaps because the ethos of pulp fiction was unsuited to the issues they raised: the first good android story was probably Clifford Simak’s Time and Again of 1951. The popularity of robot was helped along by the famous series of stories by Isaac Asimov, which introduced the Three Laws of Robotics. These stories and their imitators helped lead to the use of the word robot for any automated mechanical tool, such as the ones now common in high-tech car assembly plants.

Back to Marvin. On his first appearance in the spaceship Heart of Gold, Douglas Adams says: “The voice was low and hopeless and accompanied by a slight clanking sound. They span around and saw an abject steel man standing hunched in the doorway.” Later, Marvin complains about “the pain in all the diodes down my left side” and remarks of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation: “‘Let’s build robots with Genuine People Personalities’, they said. So they tried it out on me. I’m a personality prototype. You can tell can’t you?”. The case for the prosecution rests, m’lud: Marvin is a self-confessed robot. Zaphod is therefore wrong to call him a paranoid android (doubly wrong, actually, as Marvin is obviously not paranoid, but depressive. Still, nought out of two isn’t bad).

Most science-fiction writers have kept the distinction between android and robot fairly clear. But in recent years a lot of people in films and television have been getting it wrong, so perhaps Zaphod can be excused. Think of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He appears humanoid and in the first pilot episode explicitly declares himself to Admiral McCoy to be an android, but he has a positronic brain (a direct reference to the robots in Isaac Asimov’s stories). He also has rather a lot of pretty electronic circuitry which on various occasions we see pulsing under access hatches and which can be plugged into the ship’s systems by an umbilical cable for diagnostic purposes. That makes Data a robot in my book.

Star Wars had a couple of unbearably cute robots, obviously mechanical, but which were frequently referred to by Luke Skywalker as droids, short for android, to an extent that the abbreviated word now turns up from time to time alone or as a suffix. Usually, and despite Star Wars, this fits the standard sense of android by describing some human person, though one with diminished capabilities: an anchordroid is a talentless television news presenter, a marketdroid is an unimaginative and rule-bound marketing person, and so on. However, this useful pejorative formation has been spoiled by Red Dwarf, in which the little robots called scutters that do the donkey work are also referred to as droids.

Robert Silverberg, now almost the doyen of SF writers, seems to confuse the two concepts in Thebes of the Hundred Gates when he has a character say: “You like to think of me as some sort of android, some kind of mechanical man, but in fact I’m every bit as human as you are, and maybe a little more so”. This is surprising, as he wrote one of the classic android stories, Tower of Glass, and a short story about the election of a robot Pope, Good News from the Vatican.

So the history and current usage of the two words suggests that their fate may be the same as that of other useful word-pairs, such as disinterested / uninterested or deny / refute: the distinction in sense which careful writers have traditionally made is becoming blurred. To that extent, the language loses precision.

Page created 20 Jul. 1996

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Last modified: 20 July 1996.