This presentation explores a wide range of communication theory, and provides arguments that re-evaluate the significance of otherness in communication. The ideas are illustrated with examples of human-robot interaction from science, art and fiction, because analysing the ways in which reason, emotion (or affect), and embodiment are figured in these interactions suggests innovative ways to think about otherness in communication.

Human interactions with humanoid robots emphasise the way in which key traditions of understanding communication – as cybernetic-semiotic processes of information exchange, as socio-psychological attempts to influence others, or as a socio-cultural production of shared social meaning – all assume that commonality is key to effective communication. In contrast, encounters with non-humanoid robots are more open to phenomenological theory and its respect for otherness. For example, Emmanuel Levinas’ conception of the “face to face”, where the alterity of the other is retained even as it is brought into proximity with the self, can be extended to describe the impact of the overt otherness of non-humanoid robots.

Interchanges with non-humanoid robots also suggest that communication is more than the transmission of information in spoken and written language. Drawing on Donna Haraway’s conception of “companion species” relations, and integrating this with dynamic systems theories of communication, supports the argument that nonverbal communication should be valued, both for its expression of emotional content, and also because it helps to explain how meaningful communication occurs in situations that are marked by the differences between participants. It is therefore argued that communication is a dynamic process, consisting of verbal and nonverbal components drawn out of, and expressing, both reason and emotion.

Accepting this broad and fluid conception of communication has implications for robotics, because it suggests that humans can work with non-humanoid robots such that their differences make the team more effective. Moving out from the focus on robots, this approach also forms a basis for describing communication between all kinds of selves and others in a way that retains and values their differences.