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ZeMKI-member Andreas Hepp gives a presentation at DigiKomm 2019 in Berlin

The presentation is entitled “Communicative robots: Rethinking the entanglement of automated communication"

The Conference on "Automating Communication in the Networked Society: Contexts, Consequences, Critique“ takes place from 6. - 8. November 2019 in Berlin. Prof Dr. Andreas Hepp gives a presentation on "Communicative robots: Rethinking the entanglement of automated communication".

Find further information about the conference here.

The abstract by Prof. Dr. Andreas Hepp:

Communicative robots: Rethinking the entanglement of automated communication

Considering the latest developments in media technology and artificial intelligence, nowadays the possibilities of automation come together in the emergence of what we might call communicative robots. From a users’ point of view, communicative robots are not an isolated phenomenon but have to be seen in the broader context of the spread of robots in the domestic and private spheres. Looking at the past few decades, it is noticeable that household robots have become increasingly prevalent in both popular and academic discourse. Fortunati argues that we are witness to an incipient ‘robotization’ (Fortunati, 2017: 3) of private and domestic life. Service robots such as automated vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and window cleaners are beginning to seep into the popular imagination and into our homes.

Broadly, communicative robots operate — often but not always on the basis of artificial intelligence — autonomously with the purpose of simulating communication with human beings to enable further algorithmic based functionalities. The phrasing “simulation of communication” is deliberately chosen: First, it emphasizes the fact that the main function of communicative robots in their relation to human beings is not ‘that the machine is able to think but that it is able to communicate’ (Esposito, 2017: 250; Guzman, 2018). Furthermore, this phrasing makes explicit that the form of communication which takes place is an attribution of communication by humans to a machine and not communication in the sense of a human symbolic exchange as it is theorized in symbolic interactionism.

Based on this understanding of communicative robots, the aim of my presentation is to show that their position in processes of communication can only be adequately analyzed if their ‘entanglement’ (Scott and Orlikowski, 2014: 873) with other communicative and social practices is in view. I want to substantiate this with the discussion of empirical research on virtual assistants (i.e. Alexa, see Sciuto et al., 2018), social bots (i.e. Twitter bots, see Gehl and Bakardjieva, 2016) and work bots (i.e. bots in automated journalism, see Caswell and Dörr, 2018) as the three currently predominant forms of communicative robots. In all these cases, human communication with robots is not an isolated phenomenon, but embedded in a variety of other practices: the situations in which virtual assistants are used; online interactions about political content in which the social bots are located; various journalistic working practices in which the work bots are integrated.

Taking this entanglement of communicative robots, we can see that advanced automation has increased the media’s processual dynamics. First of all, this concerns data processing. The core aspect of automation is the automated recognition and processing of data (language, images, etc.) through the utilization of databases. What we are dealing here with are new forms of institutionalization and materialization based on processes of categorization. Relational in their structure, the databases used are highly flexible and only loosely connected objects can be ordered in a potentially unlimited number of ways. Because of this flexibility, categorization is important as even metadata is not strictly ‘raw’ in nature but already somehow organized and, therefore, structured (cf. Gitelman and Jackson, 2013). This categorization constitutes a powerful semantic and political intervention because ‘what the categories are, what belongs to a category, and who decided how to implement these categories in practice, are all powerful assertions how things are and supposed to be’ (Gillespie, 2014: 171). Overall, categorization is an ongoing process with its own dynamics as new data are added based on the assignments made. We are thus confronted here with processes of an automated, data-based construction of reality. What is evident here is a type of ‘data structuring’ (Flyverbom and Murray, 2018: 1) which is part of today’s processes of reality construction based on the structuring qualities of databases.

Secondly, it becomes apparent that this automated processing relies on procedures of continuous feedback. In a certain sense, a special quality of communicative robots is that they are designed to communicate data to humans in a targeted manner and along predefined scripts. Targeted communication can take on a variety of forms: It could be the precise answer to a question addressed to an artificial companion, but it is also possible that a bot communicates back information on an event – an earthquake, a football goal, an exceeded limit value of air pollution – almost instantaneously. Furthermore, it can also mean that information about oneself (tastes, habits, and so on) is collected on an ongoing basis and that suggestions for visiting events, buying new books or reading additional information are made based on the automated processing of such data. With communicative robots we as humans are increasingly confronted with a process of dynamic feedback through machines. With the spread of artificial intelligence, an increasing number of digital platforms are taking on the character of communicative robots.



Caswell, D. & Dörr, K. (2018) Automated Journalism 2.0: Event-driven narratives. Journalism Practice, 12, 477-496.

Esposito, E. (2017) Artificial Communication? The Production of Contingency by Algorithms. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 46, 249-265.

Flyverbom, M. & Murray, J. (2018) Datastructuring—Organizing and curating digital traces into action. Big Data & Society, 5, 1-12.

Fortunati, L. (2017) Robotization and the domestic sphere. New Media & Society, Online First, 1461444817729366.

Gehl, R.W. & Bakardjieva, M. (Eds.) (2016) Socialbots and their friends: Digital media and the automation of sociality Routledge,

Gillespie, T. (2014) The relevance of algorithms. In Media technologies. Essays on communication, materiality, and society, (Eds, Gillespie, T., Boczkowski, P.J. & Foot, K.A.) MIT, Cambridge, London, pp. 167-194.

Gitelman, L. & Jackson, V. (2013) Introduction. In Raw Data” is an Oxymoron, (Ed, Gitelman, L.) MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-13.

Guzman, A.L. (2018) Introduction: What is human-machine-communication anyway? In Human-machine Communication: Rethinking Communication, Technology, and Ourselves, (Ed, Guzman, A.L.) Peter Lang, New York, pp. 1-28.

Sciuto, A. et al. (2018) Hey Alexa, what’s up? A mixed-methods studies of in-home conversational agent usage. Proceedings of the 2018 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference 2018, 857-868.

Scott, S.V. & Orlikowski, W.J. (2014) Entanglements in practice: performing anonymity through social media. MIS Quarterly, 38, 873-893.



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