Close encounters with robots: re-evaluating otherness in communication

Eleanor Sandry

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated abstract] Communication is often thought of as a bridge between self and other, supported by what they have in common, and designed to develop their commonality further. However, the goal of eliminating difference can be regarded as undesirably ‘violent’ to the other, suggesting the need for more ethical models of communication in which the differences between self and other are retained and valued for the possibilities they offer. This thesis explores a wide range of communication theory, and presents 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 communicative processes.

Humanoid robots in fact and fiction, such as Data from Star Trek and Kismet designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, occupy an unstable position: they are designed to be humanlike in their interactions with people and yet they also remain inherently other-than-human. Their communicative repertoire emphasises the way in which key traditions of understanding communication as – cybernetic-semiotic processes of information exchange, the production of critical rational discourse, sociopsychological attempts to influence others, or sociocultural production of shared social meaning – are all associated with the assumption that commonality is essential for effective communication. However, robots such as Data and Kismet also demonstrate how misunderstanding, ambiguity and emergence are integral elements of communication through which otherness exerts its influence, even within the processes explored through dominant traditions of communication theory. This argument is further elaborated through a consideration of communicative interactions between humans and non-humanoid robots, such as R2-D2 from Star Wars and the Fish-Bird art installation (two robot wheelchairs designed at the Centre for Social Robotics in Sydney).
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2011


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