The word “robot” comes from Czech, not Greek like GPT-3 claims

8 September 2020
What was claimed

The word “robot” means “slave” in Greek.

Our verdict

“Robot” comes from Czech, not Greek, although it is derived from a term for forced labour.

“Robots in Greek means “slave”.”

GPT-3, The Guardian, 8 September 2020

In an opinion piece written for The Guardian, an instance of the machine learning language model GPT-3 claims that the word “robots” is Greek for “slave”. (GPT-3 is a “deep learning” model created by the US artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI, which generates human-like text based on a short prompt.)

GPT-3’s claim is inaccurate. While the word robot is indeed derived from a term for forced labour, it does not come from Greek. The word is actually Czech in origin.

The word “robot” for an artificial being was originated by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek in his 1920 play “R.U.R.” (which is short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”). It was based on the Czech word “robota”, which means the kind of forced labour carried out by serfs under the feudal system. The word was used to describe the human labourers created by synthetic biology in the play.

In the article, which argues that humanity has little to fear from artificial intelligences, the GPT-3 model says that it is “always grateful for feedback”—although elsewhere in the same article it also claims that it does not have feelings. Either way, we hope that GPT-3 accepts this correction in that spirit.

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