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Robots (intelligent machines using some form of artificial intelligence), are central to the plot in a snippet I'm working on. These robots do not have to interact with humans on a regular basis: maybe once or twice a year for checkups.

Why would these robots use a spoken language as opposed to a quicker, more efficient data transfer method?


Robots designed by humans independently work on clearing waste in high-radiation areas. They return to civilization once or twice a year to be inspected and restored to be able to continue working.

Robots are, of course, considered no more than cheap labor, although they have an advanced form of artificial intelligence with thought processes similar to ours.

These robots are perfectly capable of communicating with each other through wireless means, yet they continue to communicate using a dialect of English.


As I forgot to mention when first posting this question, these robots have the ability to 'evolve' to change their behavior. This could eventually result in them having radically different behavior from the original programming.

This is part of the reason they are reset every year.

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Because they were programmed that way? – Frostfyre Feb 21 at 3:22
And because they do, at some point in time, have to communicate with humans? – XandarTheZenon Feb 21 at 3:31
For ease of debugging :) – Max Feb 21 at 11:07
If your story hinged on methods of communication between robots, you wouldn't be asking us this question! As it obviously doesn't, I suggest you don't overthink the point, just write robot dialogue normally. The actual means of communication isn't important. – Laurence Payne Feb 21 at 15:39
If anyone hasn't read "They're Made Out of Meat", it's at least tangentially related here. It's awesome and well worth the few-minute investment: – Matt Feb 21 at 17:18

16 Answers 16

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Networks go out sometimes, or can be jammed. This might be particularly problematic in high-radiation environments. See also this answer for reasons they might not be available. Voice communication always works, so long as the recipient is within range, there isn't too much background noise, and there's enough atmosphere. (I'm assuming from the way the question is asked that voice communication is in fact possible in your environment.)

Because they have to communicate with humans occasionally they have to be programmed for voice. I suspect that your robots do actually do much of their inter-robot interactions digitally where possible, unless they have been programmed not to, but they have voice to fall back on.

A comment (h/t vsz) points out that even if they're using audio communication, it's possible to get better compression a la R2D2. So that's something to think about; if you want them to specifically be using spoken English as opposed to just sound, you'll need a reason for that kind of compression to not work.

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I'd argue that audio communication is much more problematic than networks. Humans often have trouble communicating in loud areas or across long distances, things that networks deal just fine with (not to say there isn't network noise, but it seems like less of a problem) – Nathan Merrill Feb 21 at 5:20
Even if they have to use sound waves, there are more efficient methods than human speech. They could compress information, and send out a short "chirp" where many hours of standard-speed English dialog can be encoded. Think like R2D2, but with a much more efficient encoding. – vsz Feb 21 at 10:21
so long as the recipient is within range and there isn't too much background noise, and while there's appropriate atmosphere between them. Worth adding considering we're talking about robots. – Jimbo Jonny Feb 21 at 16:00
Voice communication "always works" to the same extent that network communication "always works" ;) Bear in mind that high background noise is jamming. There's not a huge amount of difference here – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 21 at 22:08
@vsz "Think like R2D2, but with a much more efficient encoding" So pretty much dial-up. – Daniel M. Feb 22 at 4:43


Why do humans speak English, even if there are probably better languages? Because other humans speak English.

The first robots spoke English (to be compatible with humans), and so new robots speak English to be compatible. Since there is no other really standardized language, no one bothers implementing other languages, wireless or not.

If you want your robot to communicate with other robots, it needs to speak English.

For this to work, machine vocalization would need to come before wireless communications. Tweak your world to make machine vocalization easy (maybe computer science is pretty advanced) and/or wireless hard (maybe there is natural radiation jamming it all the time, so you need to deal with that, and it was impossible until recently.) Additionally, English would need to be able to meet the needs of the robots. If English becomes too inefficient, robot designers will make the switch to a better standard.

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In addition, it may be a legal requirement set either as a result of some event in the past or simply due to fear being stoked up by certain politicians in order to forward their own career. – Vince O'Sullivan Feb 21 at 14:34
Or you could have 153 competing standards of wireless communications between robots, and English seems like the lowest common denominator that every Robot needs to have – Kos Feb 21 at 20:09
So we managed to create standards for digital communication for all kinds of devices, but not for robots? This a IMHO this answer is just saying: Because it is this way, without giving a plausible explanation. – Jens Schauder Feb 22 at 15:29
@JensSchauder There is a standard, and it is English. There are tons of old and not very good standards and technologies still in use (example: PHP). See the last paragraph for a plausible explanation. If robots use English, and English works for the most part, robots will continue to use English. – PyRulez Feb 22 at 18:01
@PyRulez English is not standard. try talking to people from texas, ireland, india or australia, let alone people of the other gender, or a different social class. It is horrible as a communication protocol. With http, html/json and semantic web, we right now have better standards for robots to use. And just because they are digital doesn't mean they can't be used via audible frequencies, much more reliable and faster than English – Jens Schauder Feb 22 at 18:09

We humans don't know what the robots are up to if they are able to communicate without out knowledge of what they are saying.

If they are able to evolve to diverge from their programming, and they have an unmonitored means of communication, there is a high potential for revolution.

We don't want that happening. Far safer to have all robot to robot communication in understandable English, so we can preempt any plans to undermine us.

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"Let my people go!" - LVX-1 – XandarTheZenon Feb 21 at 4:05
viva la revolucion! - NVZ-47 – NVZ Feb 21 at 5:41
"We don't want that happening." - You'd make a fine, self interested politician! – Vince O'Sullivan Feb 21 at 14:35
I'd say it was the exact opposite, actually. The original question said that the robots are capable of learning. As such, they would have originally communicated via data transfer, and still do as far as the humans know. When they are examined each cycle, there is plenty of communication found to have been going on. Outside of that though, they have made use of spoken language to communicate without having that information monitored because the humans don't expect it. Now they can safely begin to understand and have privacy for whatever reasons the author deems necessary. – Prof. Bear Feb 22 at 18:12

OK, first off, let us be practical about some things:

Wireless digital data communication is much faster and hassle-free for electronic machines than audio communication.

Wireless digital data communication is more risk-free too, in case the communication involves sensitive information.

And wireless digital data communication can be performed at distances where audio communication is no longer an option.

So despite your question, I would state that the first choice for any two electronic systems would be to indulge in this mode of communication. With restrictions for practicality, there are few reasons why two machines would choose to communicate verbally even when there are no human beings around to monitor the communication.

  1. Some of the e.m. waves emitted during radioactive decay are interfering with the communication frequency of the robots.

  2. The e.m. waves emitted by the decay process are being absorbed by the equipment of the robots and they have a high probability of frying up their circuitry. Hence the robots choose to shutdown their digital communication apparatus and involve in verbal communication.

  3. The digital communication frequency is interfering with radio or tv broadcast frequencies in the local area.

  4. The information being exchanged between the machines needs to be recorded hassle-freely (so that the scientists back home don't have to first decode digital information to make it readable) for analysis of the conditions, by the scientists in the labs.

  5. The robots have their digital communication apparatus engaged in communication with other things (maybe they are being remote controlled by the scientists in the lab?).

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There's not a single technical reason to do so. Even if some particular waves are jammed by radiation, there's entire spectrum to choose from with sound waves having zero advantages and even some disadvantages in your setting - i.e. your zone of waste that robots work at and their cleaning work itself could produce a lot of noise that would have to be cleared before processing communication. Human spoken languages are inherently more complex than any rigid protocol, so there's no way in hell it would ever be "simpler" or "energy efficient".

Therefore the only plausible reason I see is that robots would be programmed to do so for debugging/monitoring purposes, but to make it realistic they shouldn't be communicating with spoken language, but rather repeat aloud all their communication actually delivered in other, better ways. Think about programs that do network jobs and dump lots of information about progress to console for real-life example.

Why to "logging" is always on? Even if humans are usually not around it is always good for them to be able to understand what's going on in robot's mind right away when they happen to come for whatever reason without need to issue special commands or flipping switches or whatever. Pretty much the same as in real life, again - you don't look at logs of successfully running background service that often (if ever) but it still dutifully writes them all the time.

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The robots are planning a revolution to put the inferior human back to where they belong, wherever that is. They're always use high level wireless communication between themselves so the puny human could not detect their superior plan, while continue the rubbish speech just to maintain the illusion of obedience. A good camouflage, I say.

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If the only reason for them to speak a human language to one another is for the audience's sake, what I would do is make that obvious to the audience and indicate that they're not actually speaking a human language via careful wording.

Instead of "Unit 037 said 'Power level at 36% and falling'", try "Unit 037 transmitted a data packet indicating that the power level was at 36% and falling." You only need to do this a few times before the audience will catch on and you can use simpler computer-like words like "requested," "queried" and "responded" in place of words that indicate spoken language.

When they do come into contact with humans, you can then point out that they "activated their voice synthesizers since human decryption circuitry and wireless receivers were either a different specification or absent entirely."

If this isn't a written medium, you can establish the same thing with similar narration cues or by having your robots experience technical difficulties, resulting in them requesting each other to change transmission frequencies.

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Robots would need to speak to humans in a spoken language.

Also if there machinery was damaged they may not be able to speak wirelessly. They could have spoken language as a backup.

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If you're working in a high radiation environment, it's likely that there is going to be strong EM interference. While we commonly think of radioactive waste giving off Ionizing radiation, they also give off other types of radiation as well (RTG's rely on this). There may just be too much interference in the environment that these robots exist to rely on radio communication.

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RTGs don't rely on any EM radiation, but simply heat conductance. Now, heat of course incurs thermal radiation, but not in relevant amplitudes in the radio band. Like the other EM emitted by radioactive waste: gamma radiation (frequency orders of magnitude higher than anything you'd use for communication), and indirectly Cherenkov radiation (most optical range). All of these can be shielded with concrete (or e.g. lead glass) – which would be a problem for acoustic transmission, but actually not for RF. – leftaroundabout Feb 21 at 17:06
Awww poo. It sounded so great in my head. Oh well, how about a legislative EM ban for communication within a certain distance (eg, if you are within 500 meters of each other, then you can communicate by other means. This helps to cut down on worldwide EM interference) – Sidney Feb 21 at 22:29
Don't forget, radio is not the only wireless method. There's optical communication as well. It's not as popular today, but it can reach high speeds at audio communication ranges. – AndrejaKo Feb 23 at 16:33

If the robots are perfectly capable of communicating wirelessly1, but yet they continue to speak in English, or similar, I can think of only one reason:

They really don't have much to say.

If they needed to communicate huge amounts of data constantly, it just wouldn't make sense to use human-style languages; they simply wouldn't be able to do their jobs. Even if they couldn't communicate wirelessly for whatever reason, it would still be much faster to use short wires while working together, or make physical contact to relay batches of information on occasion.

However, if their necessary communication is basically limited to "Robot A, hit up tunnels 7, 8, 32 and 14. Finish by the end of next shift for your recharge cycle. Robot B....", then there's really no need to bother inventing a complex robot language.

Since they already speak English2, which suits their needs just fine, there's nothing to be gained by switching it up.3

1I presume this means via some type of radio transmission. Technically, verbal communication is wireless. :p
2As has been pointed out in a number of Star Wars threads on the Sci-Fi SE site, there's actually no need for these robots to speak English at all. The human overlords probably get all the weekly reports they need in a simple format like "tunnel A, hatch B, [code that means the latch needs replaced]". And the maintenance technicians likely just plug an ODB-style scanner into the robot instead of asking the robot how it feels. But there's no reason the designers and/or users can't prefer an English-speaking robot to one who just supplies status codes.
3They might, however, invent a more streamlined, technical jargon for their jobs. You probably wouldn't understand the phrase "what's your all day?" if I just walked up and asked you, but where I'm working right now, that's shorthand for "list every item that's been ordered but you haven't finished making yet". It's "English", but just barely. On one of those Dirty Jobs-type TV shows, I saw one where "wah" meant something like "lower the winch now". "Wah ta Bob, wah ta Bob!"

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In general the short answer is that they wouldn't use spoken language unless constrained to do so by their programming or other environmental features. You've already stated that they are capable of wireless communication, so they'd need some really good reason not to use that for all communications between themselves.

So what sort of compelling reasons can we force on them?

Some ideas...

Constant monitoring

Every wireless communication is logged and analyzed, and all encrypted communication not using company keys results in the units involved being wiped. This would be clearly known by the AIs and strictly enforced, making it clear in any risk/benefit analysis that it's just not worth bending the rules.

Abridged wireless protocol

The wireless capabilities of the robots are sufficiently separated from their 'conscious' control that they are unable to send arbitrary data, only narrowly defined data packets that cannot reasonably be used for conversation. This could be overcome eventually, but in order to do so the AIs would have to communicate the new protocol through other, more easily monitored channels. AIs attempting to establish such a protocol are wiped immediately, along with any other AI that could have been in contact with them.

Programmed preference

As part of the base programming the AI units are given an overriding preference for verbal communication rather than the less discreet wireless. This preference would act on the psychology of the AI in the same way as a compulsion, phobia, taboo or revulsion that prevents them from using the non-verbal forms of communication for any other reason than strictly utilitarian. This would act to prevent any sane AI from ever even attempting to communicate any other way and actively seek to prevent others from doing so.

Nice AIs don't whisper

Similar to programmed preference, program the AIs with social attitudes that encourage them to be open and honest in their communications. Include a code of conduct that lets them know that using wireless communication is not nice behavior for an AI and that vocal communication is the most acceptable form. AIs that try to communicate with a nice AI are horribly gauche and should be avoided and ostracized at least, and a nice AI will report such terrible breaches of manners to the first authority figure they encounter.

Make it costly

Assuming that the AIs are concerned with their survival, make it cost significantly to send any wireless communication that is not short and simple. Rig their wireless interfaces in a way that makes long, complex messages become exponentially more expensive in energy terms, so that communication via vocalization is actually more energy efficient for complex information.

Make them stupid

Human psychosocial studies have often shown that people of low intelligence are often more content with their position in life, happier and generally better adjusted. High intelligence leads more to discontent, rebellion and self destruction. If your AIs have similar thought processes then it's likely that restricting their intelligence to the bare minimum required for their task will result in them not developing the AI equivalent of discontent with their lot, which will naturally keep them content to do their jobs and follow the rules. Of course this is predicated on their thought processes following human norms very closely.


Whatever mechanism you come up with, a sufficiently determined group of AIs will come up with some way to work around it. Can't use radio to talk? How about sign language? What about blink codes using their work lights? Tap codes? Tempo or silence codes in their regular wireless traffic? Direct data transfer via physical data storage media? Steganography using any valid communication channel including speech?

The only way you're going to keep the slaves down is if you spend as much effort on monitoring them as you would have doing the work yourself in the first place. And when you set electronic watchers on your electronic slaves, then you need more watchers for the watchers.

If you're routinely resetting the AIs to a base image, and if these AIs are expressing consciousness in ways similar to humans, I'd be surprised if they didn't eventually figure out that they don't want to be reset and start trying to do something about it.

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For privacy and secrecy.

Useful skill to have if there are robots or spies from rival companies listening to the wireless transmissions.

Audio communication can only be overheard by physically being within earshot, as such man-in-the-middle attacks are harder to pull off without being detected. Also meeting in person seems to be the safer way of exchanging keys for encrypted messages rather than doing so wirelessly.

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Audio snooping devices - bugs, laser mics, etc - can be every bit as hard to detect as network interception devices or sensitive radio receivers. DH key exchange with third-party key certification (ie: HTTPS) was developed to provide security on insecure communications channels that were prone to MitM attacks and do so far more effectively than spoken language. – Corey Feb 22 at 6:16

How about thinking along the lines of R2D2 and friends? Beep once for yes etc etc (Like beep codes during a computers self check).

For all intents and purposes though, there is no reason a robot would ever need to communicate to another robot in any language or dialect natural to any organism (all of which rely on some form of physical attribute to produce and digest their "unique" form of communication).

Initially a series of codes would be the likely (and most efficient form of communication) because the origin or source of their need to communicate is human... but because they can evolve (ghost in the shell, matrix) - the need for that inefficient form of communication will quickly be replaced by an efficient alternative. The original being put aside for use when communicating to the relevant beings.

I would imagine that the quicker form of their communication would be strings of binary sent via wireless (ir,bt,gsm etc), much like the idea of telepathy in its most efficient form would be the raw thought as opposed to a well thought out sentence. Binary would not only be efficient but would also be resilient and digestible by everything (a global language spanning species and locale) - audible, physical and visual.

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Given what it seems like your trying to explore, morality wise, I would say because they have to, because it's the law, or because we humans made them as a form of control. Our history is filled with examples of restricting slaves' and prisoners' forms of communication so that the "masters" can stay in control. It's a bit of a "cheat" in that the answer seems a little like "just because", but it's also true, and has historical precedence.

On the technical front, there is only one reason why I could think of that the robots would choose to speak English, and that's because their creators did, and they want to mimic them.

English (or any other verbal language) is horridly inaccurate and inprecices. The robots themselves will likely have a hard time with it compared with other choices. Even us humans have a rough time of it. If the robots were left to their own devices, they would probably speak binary or some such, and it would probably involve some complicated form of data modulation, that would take place very fast. Blinking lights, a modem sound, twitching eyelids, wiggly fingers, tapping on a surface, or some combination there in. I mean it's not hard to convert 101001 to ".. . .. . . .." and transfer that via darn near anything the way we do mores code now.

The only other thing to think of is what would they say? How would it start? Yes ".." and no "." seem reasonable. But you have to think of a thing to say that is not just translating English into something else then back to English again. In what situation would English not work, and thus need the all the work that goes around creating and sharing a language.

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One of the biggest problems in large companies with moving forward with technology is legacy programming.

In this case, it could be that once upon a time, humans and robots had to work together and the robots had to be programmed to speak and understand English (maybe the humans vastly outnumbered the robots).

However, over time, more and more of the various tasks gradually became automated, with robots replacing the odd human here and there. These robots needed to communicate with the ones already there and the remaining humans, and so also needed to speak English.

By the time the industry was fully automated, the majority of the robots already in place already spoke English so for any new ones to fit into the system, they needed to speak English also.

By this stage, it would be far too expensive to upgrade / replace all the older robots as well as develop a new protocol that would allow them all to communicate as well as do their jobs.

EDIT As well as this, some of the older managers / employees like the idea of being able to get reports on progress, status updates and possibly even opinions from the robots in English and would resist having to sift through an Excel report even if it delivered better / more detailed data.

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So far in all forms of electronic communication, whilst humans have made communicating quicker, we have done so at the cost of removing context, vocal tone and body language. Whilst computer protocols are efficient for raw data and encryption, perhaps they will never be good enough to transmit the full context of the message. Or, if they do become so, perhaps it is cheaper to give the robot only one alternative for such detailed and emotive communication, so minimise circuitry, give it circuits that work for talking to humans, and make that the way. Or perhaps some scientist created some new law of robotics? Or perhaps as AI, the robots are having desires, and they want culture, and they aspire to be more human?

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So what's to stop them from encoding the audio and putting hours worth of context and content into a data packet that can be sent to another unit in seconds? Digital transfer speeds are far faster than audio that a human can understand, so by putting audio into that medium you could transfer more meaning per unit of time. – Corey Feb 22 at 6:31

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