Working it out with the algobots

High-frequency trading may be the hottest new thing on Wall Street, but the term for bots that make it happen has ancient roots.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Barack Obama (second from l.) is introduced to Asimo the robot while visiting Miraikan, or the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, in Tokyo.

Last week’s Monitor Weekly introduced me to a nifty mouthful of a technical term, as well as a great new portmanteau word.

Harry Bruinius’s story on high-frequency trading in the financial markets, “Is a high-tech Wall Street fair?,” reported on a “dizzying Digital Age landscape of algorithmic robot traders,” or “algobots” for short.

The article gave me an impetus to look up – finally – just what an algorithm is and to do a little digging around the etymological roots of these bots.
Merriam-Webster defines algorithm “broadly” as “a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary provides a very familiar example: “the process that Google uses in its search engine to ensure high quality informational results when the user enters search terms.”

But algorithm goes way back, to a time when computers were mathematicians scribbling calculations out by hand.

It’s one of those terms that came to us from Arabic, a reminder of the period when Islamic civilization led the world in science, mathematics, and medicine. (The initial “al” is a tip-off.) Algorithm came into English in the 1690s from a medieval Latin algorismus, which the Online Etymology Dictionary calls a “mangled transliteration” from Arabic of “al-Khwarizmi.”

This was the surname of Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the 9th-century Baghdad mathematician who “invented” algebra. He used the term al jebr, an Arabic term meaning “reunion of broken parts,” in the title of a famous treatise he wrote on equations. The mathematician used al jebr to refer to his computations; but curiously, the first use of algebra in English, in the 15th century, referred to bone-setting. It was a usage probably borrowed from Arab medical men in Spain, the etymology dictionary suggests.

But I digress. What about robots? Common words can rarely be assigned a specific date of entry into the language, but robot is a 20th-century coinage on whose origin dictionaries are in wide agreement. The word popped into English in 1923, from the English translation of a play by Czech playwright Karel Capek, “R.U.R.” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”). The playwright credited his brother Josef with coining the term, from the Czech robotnik, meaning “slave.”

“R.U.R.” was about a factory that makes “artificial people ... out of synthetic organic matter,” according to Wikipedia. These robots, though, were not electromechanical devices but rather “closer to the modern idea of cyborgs or even clones, as they may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves.” The new word robot displaced older words, such as automaton, which goes back to 1610, or even android.

Android, by the way, while not as ancient as algebra, is much older than your smart phone: It goes back to 1842 as a word meaning “an automaton resembling a human being.” Marked “rare” in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, it has enjoyed a resurgence since the early 1950s, however.

Bot is another term with a history curiously longer than you might expect. The Online Etymology Dictionary pins it, as a short form of robot, to the year 2000, but adds, “Its modern use has curious affinities with earlier uses, such as a sense of ‘parasitical worm or maggot,’ ” going back to the 1520s.

High-frequency trading may be the hottest new thing on Wall Street. But the bots that make it happen have roots that go way back.

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