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warren clements

"Robo-call scandal," the phrase being used to describe suspicious activity during last spring's federal election campaign, echoes the title of the 1987 film RoboCop, which was similarly about the abuse of technology.

Voters in a number of ridings said they were the victims of dirty tricks. In some cases, a recorded message falsely told them their polling stations had been relocated. In other cases, callers pretending to be Liberals reportedly harassed them in order to turn them against the Liberals. The hunt is on to discover who did what and when, and who knew about it.

A promising scandal demands a catchy name. Think of Watergate, Shawinigate and the South Sea Bubble. Robo-call isn't ideal for this one, since robo-calls are automated phone calls that annoy people with a recorded message, while many of last year's calls were made by humans. But the name is more fun than the alternative, the "voter-suppression scandal." A crusade to call the episode Robocon (con as in deceive) is on tricky ground, since Robocon is a long-standing international contest for designers of automatons, being held this year in Hong Kong, should you happen to be in the neighbourhood.

Anyone feeling queasy about linking robo with scandal should remember that robots have always been a bit dodgy. In R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Capek that gave the world the term "robot" ( robota), the machines rebelled against their creators. Despite author Isaac Asimov's formulation of the three laws of robotics in 1942, specifying that robots must obey humans and not injure them, a robotic house tried to impregnate Julie Christie in the 1977 movie Demon Seed. Now Canada is faced with this robo-calling mess. Honestly, it never ends.

Aside from the title and stage directions, the first mention of robots in R.U.R. was in a line of office dictation: "As soon as the consignment was taken on board, we drew your captain's attention to the fact that the vessel was unsuitable for the transportation of Robots." Even before the 1923 production of the English translation by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair, newspapers had picked up on Capek's coinage. "A Robot that fails to raise goose flesh," The New York Times wrote in 1922, "does dire sabotage against its dramatic inventor."

The earliest print citation for "robo call" dates from Oct. 26, 1998, when Associated Press Online reported on the U.S. midterm elections. "For the Democrats, Vice-President Al Gore is taping radio spots in Spanish and Hillary Rodham Clinton's voice is on the other end of thousands of 'robo calls' placed to New Mexicans."

But robo's potential occurred to writers before that. In 1984, musing about the implications of voice mail, The Washington Post wrote: "The binary chatter can be hooked to an auto-dialler, producing the kind of robo-huckster solicitations that are becoming increasingly frequent in the Silicon Decade."

Robo as a modifier of nouns dates back to the 1940s, when A.E. van Vogt wrote of a "roboplane." The adjective robotic was in use by 1928 in general reference to robots, and by 1929 writers were already using it as shorthand for soulless and mechanical ("robotic uniformity").

Capek himself had a source for his "robot." The Czech robota meant servitude, and derived from the Old Slavic orbu or rabu, slave. Orbu is thought to have come from the Indo-European root orbh, to separate, and orbho, to be without a father. Orbh led to the Greek orphanos (orphaned). The link is that orphans were often pressed into service as unpaid household drudges.

And if the thought of orphans and drudgery has you humming Tomorrow from the musical Annie, consider that even the robo-call scandal could use a good song to immortalize it. All together now: Ro, ro, ro your bo....