Life imitates art. It is a foregone conclusion for futurologists that much of the technology that lies ahead will have been somehow imagined in the past. Yes, futurology – it's an actual thing. Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the helicopter, was inspired by Jules Verne’s 1886 sci-fi novel, Clipper of the Clouds. The Smithsonian catalogs ten inventions inspired by science fiction, including the rocket, the submarine, and the cell phone. Much of the technology we live with today had once been just a dream in the mind of novelists and stargazers.
Robots certainly fall into this category. A question we had at Lexicon was whether real robot names reflect the nomenclature of fictional robots. A brief analysis of about 300 robot names from science fiction revealed a few major themes.
One theme was a reliance on individual letters and/or numbers, often in the form of alphanumerics and acronyms. Some classic examples – R2-D2, C-3PO, and BB-8 – hail from one of the most famous sci-fi franchises, Star Wars. Others include SI-9 from the 2011 film Eva, EDI from Stealth, or even further back, L-76 from the 1964 novel The Rest of the Robots. In this context, the alphanumerics seem to represent a sort of model or ID number, highlighting the robots' systematic industrial production; they're consumer products.
Interestingly, another major theme we found was human names. Lenny, Jessica, Ava, Helen, Louie… the list goes on. This makes sense since many robots are androids (a word coined from Greek parts roughly meaning "human-like"), and in some imaginations, they're virtually indistinguishable from actual people – think the Replicants from Blade Runner. Some names even combine the human and industrial elements. A few examples: Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit films, MARK13 from the 1990 film Hardware, D.A.R.Y.L. which stands for "Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform" from the film of the same name, and R.A.L.F. "Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator" from Flight of the Navigator.
Possibly because of these two opposing domains, some authors opt for ambiguous "futuristic" coinages, neither readily recognizable as a human or product name. These run the gamut from sleek and smooth to just plain uncomfortable in the mouth: Aniel, Alsatia Zevo, Zhora, Zat, Weebo, Trurl, Dorfl.
It's not hard at all to find some of these same naming tropes in the real world: Apple's Siri is actually an acronym that stands for "Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface"; Alexa is Amazon's take on the concept. An even more explicit fictional borrowing is Microsoft's Cortana, named after an AI character from the Halo games. The full categorization of these voice interface platforms as robots is up for debate, but there's no question the naming conventions are a matter of life imitating art.
KATIA, which stands for "Kick Ass Trainable Intelligent Arm" is an example of a real robot whose name takes a cue from sci-fi. The same is true for LS3, which stands for "Legged Squad Support Systems." On the other end of the spectrum – human names – are Jimmy, Buddy, and Lucy.
A final theme to note is the use of classical languages and figures. This seems to have been more common in earlier (pre-1980s) sci-fi, with names such as Rex, Colossus, Kronos, Talos, and Proteus IV. And this is yet another domain exploited by real world robots: Alpha 2, Atlas, da Vinci.
So it seems that real robot names do tend to resemble those of their sci-fi predecessors. But what do these themes mean?
On the one hand, we logically understand robots as products; but the more human-like qualities they take on, the more we feel the need to humanize them. Strange coinages are a way for us to process the sheer weirdness of robots and AI. And references to the classics may stand for the dawning of a new era, one that is uncannily similar to the beginnings of our own modern world.
—Greg Alger, Director of Linguistics