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Lost epigraphs – Chapter 1

Humanoid Robots

Chapter 1 Designing Robots to Communicate with Humans

yellow_quotationIdeally, robots (and other interactive technologies) could participate in natural, human-style social exchange with their users (Breazeal and Foerst, 1999, p. 375).

This quotation encapsulates the idea that robots designed to communicate with humans should be able to take part in humanlike social exchanges that seem natural from the perspective of human participants. Although Breazeal and Foerst wrote this in 1999, the idea that humanoid robots are preferable if human-robot communication is to be encouraged is still a feature in discussions about social robots (Dautenhan, 2013). In this chapter, I discuss a number of different humanoid robots in drawing out the ways that interactions between humans and humanoid robots are framed by understandings of communication that position the differences between communicators as a problems to be overcome.

The chapter then critiques these ideas, drawing on the work of John Durham Peters (1999) and Amit Pinchevski (2006) who both suggest that efforts to remove the differences between communicators are undesirable. While the reduction of difference is a feature of various communication theories, I argue that at times some differences are positioned as positive attributes within a particular context. For example, the difference afforded by Data’s lack of feelings (yes, I do discuss the character in Star Trek: The Next Generation) is regarded in a positive light, because it lends his communication a precise and logical edge that fits well within Star Fleet, an organisation that places great value on rational argument, logic and precision in deciding what actions to take or processes to follow.


Breazeal, C., & Foerst, A. (1999). Schmoozing with robots: exploring the boundary of the original wireless network. In Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Cognitive Technology (pp. 375–389).

Dautenhahn, K. (2013). Human-Robot Interaction. In M. Soegaard & R. F. Dam (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd ed.). Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/human-robot_interaction.html

Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the air: a history of the idea of communication. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Pinchevski, A. (2005). By way of interruption: Levinas and the ethics of communication. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Dusquene University Press.

Image of Kismet taken by Eleanor Sandry, with still of Data from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DataTNG.jpg)

Lost epigraphs – Introduction

My print copies of Robots and Communication have just arrived here in Australia, so that is reason for more celebration, because it’s so good to see the physical book (even though I read so many things electronically these days).

Physical copies of the book

When I submitted the first complete manuscript of Robots and Communication to Palgrave the draft included epigraphs for each of the chapters (other than the Introduction). These were removed at the request of the publisher, because of the additional clearance that they might require. In fact, I think now that I could have argued the case, since these quotations were also embedded within the text of my book. Too late now. I do feel their loss and, since they were carefully chosen, I thought I’d share them here in a series of short posts, because they offer an alternative explanation for the structure of the book and the story it aims to tell. For completeness, I’ve added a suitable quotation for the Introduction as well, so I’ll start there…


yellow_quotation[A]ll communication theories are mutually relevant when addressed to a practical lifeworld in which ‘communication’ is already a rich and meaningful term (Craig, 1999, p. 119).

Robert Craig’s statement about the relevance of all communication theories was something I took to heart in writing Robots and Communication. Although the relatively short length of my book meant that I had to be somewhat selective, I did take the opportunity to look at human-robot interactions from the perspectives offered by a number of different traditions of communication theory. The book is therefore not only concerned with analysing human interactions with a variety of forms of robot, but also with exploring the interactions between communication theories, each of which highlight different aspects of the communication taking place. At times the theoretical traditions operate to support one another, whereas on other occasions they question one another’s basic assumptions and concerns.

There is a second point encapsulated in this quotation too, also of great importance to my argument, which draws attention to the richness that can be contained within the term ‘communication’. I’ve take particular notice of this idea when arguing for the value of nonverbal channels of communication, something that is relevant when considering interactions between humans and animals (as I do in Chapter 2) and between humans and non-humanoid robots (as I do from Part II of the book onwards).

Reference: Craig, R. T. (1999) ‘Communication theory as a field’, Communication Theory, 9(2), pp. 119–161.

Image taken by Eleanor Sandry.

Robots and Communication – The Book

After a whirlwind of proof reading activity at the beginning of the year my book, Robots and Communication, has now been published with Palgrave Macmillan in the Pivot series (electronic books with print on demand).

The series has a limited number of cover options, but I’m pretty happy with my choice:

book front   book back

Some information about Robots and Communication is available from the Palgrave website, where you can also download free sample material and request access for libraries. The book is available for purchase from online book sellers including Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

The book is structured in three sections, with an introduction and brief conclusion. Here are the chapter abstracts, which give a good idea of the material and ideas that I’ve discussed:

In order to prepare the reader for an analysis of human interactions with a wide variety of forms of robot, the introduction first explores what constitutes a robot. It then goes on to outline the different traditions of communication theory that are employed in the book’s analysis. Finally, it explains the structure and scope of the book.

PART I From Data to Dogs

Designing Robots to Communicate with Humans
In Chapter 1, the pursuit of humanlike form is analysed in both fictional and real-life contexts. Amongst other justifications, people committed to building humanoid robots argue that these robots are best suited to work in human environments and to communicate with humans. Two paths in humanoid robot design are considered, but both involve understandings of communication that value commonality over difference. This chapter draws on the critiques of the pursuit of sameness found in the work of communication scholars, which is not much discussed in robotics, to destabilise the assumption that humanlike form is the best form for communicative robots.

Human-Animal Communication
Chapter 2 pauses the book’s consideration of robots to explore human-animal communication, since nonhuman animals are an important part of many people’s lives, acting for some not only as companions, but also as co-workers. Human-animal communication is described in various, often idealised, ways in fiction, but in real-life situations an analysis of human-dog communication demonstrates the importance of attending to the smallest of nonverbal signs over periods of dynamic communication. This chapter highlights the possibilities for humans and animals, in particular dogs, to work together in teams, employing their specific skills to allow the team to perform tasks that neither human nor dog could complete alone. At the end of the chapter is a brief appraisal of the design and development of animal-like robots.

PART II Communicating with Non-Humanoid Robots

Encountering Otherness
Chapter 3 concentrates on theorising the encounter between human and robot, identifying moments when communication occurs, often using nonverbal communication channels at least initially. It discusses two versions of the Autonomous Light Air Vessels (ALAVs) art installation, within which blimp-like robots interact with one another and with visitors. It also extends Levinas’ conception of self-other encounters to consider nonhumans, including robots, in order to consider how communication can be understood to draw the self and other into proximity while retaining the differences between them.

Stories and Dances
In Chapter 4, the discussion moves beyond the initial encounter, to consider how dynamic interactions support communication with robots where those communications are also framed by a backstory. The focus is on how interactions can be understood in terms of both dialogue and overlapping continuous systems of interchange. Levinas’ theory is further extended in this chapter, to highlight the interruptions in being and in saying that occur in interactions with Fish and Bird, the wheelchair-like robots discussed throughout the chapter.

Collaboration and Trust
Chapter 5 considers what happens when humans and robots learn to complete tasks together as a team. In particular, it discusses human interactions with AUR, the robotic desk lamp. In this example, elements of verbal and nonverbal communication are combined in a dynamic communication that involves paying attention to each other as well as to the task at hand. The chapter considers communication with AUR in terms of a companion species relation, drawing on the discussion of human-dog agility teams in Chapter 2.

PART III Rethinking Robots and Communication

Humans, Animals and Machines
Chapter 6 considers the implications of human communication with nonhuman others for the categories human, animal and machine. It argues that, while the boundaries between these types of being are becoming increasingly blurred, they are nevertheless still meaningful. The chapter goes on to consider ways of assigning agency to nonhuman others on the basis of their activity in situations, while also recognising the difference between human activities and nonhuman activities.

Communication, Individuals and Systems
Chapter 7 concentrates on exploring some ideas about the relationship between individuals and systems in thinking about communication. It discusses long-term interactions with robots outside of laboratories and art installations, identifying the value of respect and trust in collaborative partnerships with robots. This is developed into a consideration of how responsibility is shared across collaborative teams, even when the team members are in an asymmetrical relationship.

The short conclusion to this book explains the basis for its somewhat eclectic analysis, which uses a range of traditions of communication theory, as well as considering the overarching conceptions of discrete state and dynamic systems methodologies.

I’ve tried to make sure that Robots and Communication is appealing, whether the reader wants to find out more about communication theory and approaches to analysing communicative situations, or is interested in robotics and wants to explore the possibilities of human-robot interactions with a wide range of different forms of robot.

If you read the book, I’d love to hear what you think, and I’ll be trying to reply to any comments and feedback I receive (whether here or via Amazon sites, academia.edu etc). There are lots of different perspectives that can be taken on communication in general and on human-robot interactions in particular. I’ve put forward a somewhat provocative challenge to consider the potential of differences, even radical differences, between communicators in Robots and Communication, so I’ll be interested to hear people’s response to this approach.

ICSR Video and Roundup

I enjoyed the International Conference on Social Robotics a great deal, and I would now love to attend another robotics conference. Unfortunately, I’m still unsure about whether any paper I pitched would make it through review, because it would likely be so radically different from most of the papers being submitted. I suspect I will need to look for other opportunities like the Robots and Art workshop to help me with this, by allowing my work to exist on the edge of a main conference programme. The video of my presentation has now been uploaded online:

All the presentations from the workshop are available here.

Although not all of the research discussed during the rest of the conference was of direct interest to me, there were lots of things that I will take away from the papers that were presented and the posters that I saw. I’m planning on writing about some of the designs and concepts I saw here early next year.

It was clear to me as the conference progressed that my home really was at the Robots and Art: Misbehaving Machines workshop. All of the presentations on the workshop day were thought-provoking for me, and I loved the mix of art, design, technology and broad ideas about social interaction with humans. It was particularly good to present to some of people whose robots have inspired me to think and write about communication in recent years, and it was even better to find that they appreciated my analysis.

Although I have met Mari Velonaki twice before, it was great to see her again, and to hear a little about her more recent projects and the new collaborative laboratory venture that has just begun. I’m definitely planning another trip to Sydney so that I can catch up with Mari again properly and see what’s going on for myself.

Another high point was meeting Guy Hoffman, and actually getting to talk to him at some length about fluency and interruption in communicating with robots of all different forms. I was greatly relieved to find that my understanding of his robotic desk lamp AUR’s interactions with humans was broadly correct, but I was also interested to gain a new insight into the underlying rhythm that was at work behind its responses to the task and a human’s instructions.

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