This paper draws on examples of human-robot relations from fact and fiction to explore the idea of codes in communication between humans and machines.  The examples enable discussion within and beyond current limitations in robotics technology, and also highlight resonances between fact and fiction, to support the argument that robots need not be humanoid to sustain sophisticated human-robot interactions.

The term ‘machine code’ is normally used to describe low-level computer programming languages.  However, this paper offers an alternative understanding: one of ‘machine codes’ as social codes of speech and body language used by robots to communicate with humans.  Real-life ‘sociable robots’, such as Kismet at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, support this idea that robots can facilitate interactions with humans by communicating using social codes.

Sociable robot design follows the assumption that human form is required to facilitate human-robot relations, and Kismet’s interactions are seen to rely on its human-like facial expressions.  However, this paper argues that non-humanoid robots could also develop sophisticated interactions with humans using language and emotional expression, without relying on similarities in form.  This argument is supported by a consideration of human relations with drones, the non-humanoid robots in Iain M. Banks Culture novels.  Drones share a common language with their human counterparts and communicate using tones of voice and coloured auras to encode their emotions.  The rich interactions between drones and humans are used to provide support for this paper’s contention that non-humanoid robots offer many interesting possibilities for the development of meaningful relations with humans.