And as with many far out extrapolations of our scientific exploits, science fiction has paved the way of exploration, particularly during the golden age of sci-fi that spawned so many of the classic books and movies that went on to influence the genre for decades to come.
Of course, like many of the tropes I've explored in this series, the actual root of the robot lies much further back in history, in the ancient myths and legends of varied cultures around the world. In the ancient Chinese text of the Liezi, there is an account of King Mu of Zhou's strange encounter with an automaton built by a mechanical artificer named Yan Shi. According to the text, it was constructed of wood and leather, and "walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being."
In Greek mythology we have Hephaestus, the god of fire and smithery. In addition to forging the iconic weapons of the Olympic gods and heroes, he also was said to have built several metal automata as servants, from intelligent golden handmaidens to table-like tripods that moved about of their own volition. These mythological accounts would inspire Aristotle, who speculated in Politics that it would take an automaton revolution to end slavery and bring about true human equality. "There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves," he said. "This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation."
The word "robot" itself was popularized by Czech author and playwright Karel Čapek in R.U.R. (which stood for Rossum's Universal Robots), his 1921 play about a factory that creates artificial people for labor. While Čapek's robot's were closer to what we'd call androids today, the word became widely used in popular culture and fiction following the play's success.
1927 saw the release of Fritz Lang's German expressionist film, Metropolis. This groundbreaking dystopian marked the first portrayal of a robot on film, the Maschinenmensch, which captured the sense of awe and strangeness that would typify golden age robots.
These days, robots are likely one of the first concepts that spring to most minds when the words "science" and "fiction" are coupled. The classic works of influential authors like Isaac Asimov—who formulated the Three Laws of Robotics in his popular Robot series—have made our mechanical friends synonymous with scifi. The traditional vision of robots has become somewhat cliche in the last twenty years or so, massaged and refined into sub-tropes like androids, cyborgs, and artificial intelligences, but for the most part fictional robots are still going strong.
Meanwhile, their real world counterparts are growing more advanced every day. Robots have served fundamental roles in our society for decades, mostly in the industrial sector. But as the technology behind their construction and capabilities grows, so does the list of their applications. Besides their typical roles in manufacturing, robots are also being employed as everything from military combat drones to household vacuum cleaners. I don't know if the robopocalypse is coming anytime soon, but it would probably serve us well to get used to the idea of living with robots, as their presence is only going to become more ubiquitous as time goes on.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
The Day the Earth Stood Still