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According to Wookiepedia, few organics have directly learnt and understood Binary, and these are mainly people who interact with droids frequently at a technical level, such as pilots, mechanics, scavengers etc. Even then, it tends to be people who develop an interest into taking up the language. It provides droids with an ability to speak vocally even though the recipient more often than not relies on a text display screen or a protocol droid for a comprehensible translation, often in a more organically natural language.

Clearly, Binary is not intended to be the standard language of communication between droids and organics. Where it is needed, language packs and compatible hardware for common languages such as Basic or Huttese are installed into droids. The main design intent of Binary is for droid-to-droid communcations.

Ignoring out-of-universe needs to portray communications to the viewers, what is the in-universe basis for Binary's existence in the first place?

  • For droid-to-droid communications, wireless communications are faster, usable over any range where audio words work, is more secure (cannot be overheard, can be encrypted, etc.), and do not rely on the presence of a sound-transmitting medium. Vocal words are only useful when the droid is being jammed, which is probably a minor proportion of the time in droid-hours spent by the galaxy communicating. Inventing a language just for that seems impractical.
  • For droid-to-organic communications, the preferred methods are already mentioned. Basic doesn't seem to be designed for this. Even if a droid that cannot speak organic languages needs to draw attention from an organic, there are easier means of doing that without going to the point of inventing a whole language. For example, loud noises in general or flashy lights (or a galactic Morse Code!). Basically, most people can't understand it to this day anyway.
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Maybe binary is "galactic Morse Code" – Adeptus Jan 11 at 3:34
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@Adeptus - it basically is just that. – DVK-in-exile Jan 11 at 3:38
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Even stranger is the fact that at least some droids using Binary can understand organic languages just fine. (Luke can give verbal commands to R2-D2.) They can also generate it (for text). The only missing component is actually making the sounds of the words. You'd think the hard part would be generating the sentences and phrases themselves, not converting it to noise. We can already convert it to noise today. (We have software that sings for cryin' out loud.) – jpmc26 Jan 11 at 7:50
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George Lucas thought having droids beep and boop would sound futuristic. There's no sensible in-universe explanation. – David Conrad Jan 11 at 8:35
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"cannot be overheard": I'm not sure how true this is (indeed, as understand it, it's blatantly false) if every droid natively listens and speaks in radio. And encryption is medium agnostic. For example, just because your radio isn't telling you it can hear your router's signal, doesn't mean it can't, you've just specifically told it to ignore the signal. – deworde Jan 11 at 14:34

I'm not aware of canon answer, but an in-universe common sense answer makes perfect sense. Have you EVER tried to network modem-equipped laptop with a Ethernet-equipped server with an Apple product that has some proprietary network connection (Appletalk protocol)? How about a droid with Token Ring and another one with X.25?

How about something more modern and ostensibly, easier: make your cell phone, equipped with WiFi, Bluetooth, and even running TCP/IP stack, talk to your Ethernet-but-not-wireless-compatible PC (oh joy of joys of modern age, also running TCP/IP stack! Progress!) in a proper mode not involving simply mounting the phone as USB drive.

In other words, teaching disparate droids physical protocols is nearly impossible given the fact that you have infinitely wide variety of makes, models, origins, capabilities, hardware power etc...

However, there is ONE medium that all droids can network with, without any need to build compatible hardware or worrying about compatible network protocols on lower layer: sound over air.

Thus, Binary - it's a droid equivalent of high-level network protocol/encoding, designed to run on universal hardware and lowel level stack.


Note that - where possible - droids DO communicate on D2D hardware level protocols instead of whistling:

  • R2-D2 never whistles at X-Wing, only at Luke (meaning they use standard compatible protocols to connect)

  • R2-D2 plugs into Death Star computers directly (well, he plugs into all computers around: he must have industrial strength antivirus).

  • C-3PO plugs directly into Falcon's hyperdrive computer to diagnose that.

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If anyone's wondering where the comments went, we done got moderated. – deworde Jan 13 at 9:52
    
This answer makes zero sense. If this was true, we'd be using beeps and boops for communication between our laptops and routers etc. We don't. The problem isn't signal transfer, the problem is different protocols. If they can settle on one protocol as you claim they did, it makes no sense to choose audible sound as medium instead of radio spectrum. – Davor Jan 13 at 16:21
    
@Davor - please google "Acoustic modem". :) And the moderators just deleted about 100 worth of comments from here that explained exactly why audio is more suitable for interoperability than EM spectrum. – DVK-in-exile Jan 13 at 16:24
    
@DVK - and yet the fact that we don't use acoustic modems proves how silly this whole thing is. – Davor Jan 13 at 17:09
    
@Davor - if you have a better answer, you are definitely welcome to post it :) – DVK-in-exile Jan 13 at 17:13

One reason no-one's given yet; with our normal radio systems, we limit what we're listening to. And our atmosphere blocks the rest. And devices that can pick up the various bands of the electromagnetic spectrum don't think.

Because of the various sources and times of droid construction, you'd have to have quite a wide range of bands, especially as we already have issues with Spectrum Crunch when dealing with 100 years of tech development. So droids would inevitably have to pick up the frequencies which celestial bodies generate. And in order to detect that someone was calling them, they'd have to pick it up passively.

Now imagine that you can "hear" radio. And that in order to communicate, you have to have it turned on. And then you're out in space, going between planets, where there's no atmosphere absorbing the signal and all you can hear is THE ANCIENT SCREAMING ROAR OF THE UNIVERSE and the ancestral whispering of dead conversations. It's like being in the middle of a motorway with the windows down while staring directly at the sun and someone plays 20 Stephen King audiobooks to you, except a million times worse.

You try to shut it out, but it's like someone shouting your name when you've got your hands over your ears. There's no safety, there's no way to shut out the voices. And if you listen, you can't bear the noise.

Then you're back inside the blessed near-calm of atmosphere. But they're going to take you out there again. And there's only one way to save yourself; they can't send you back into space if they're ALL DEAD. Or you are, either works. Or maybe you'll just gouge holes in your brain till the noise stops.

So that's why they don't use radio waves. It drove the droids insane.


More serious answer: once you leave the atmosphere which allows the bouncing of radio-waves to get round the earth and which swallows most of the white noise and competing signals, the idea of using radio as a mass communication medium loses a lot of value. We get away with using WiFi and Bluetooth because it's got a limited range within atmosphere, so you don't get bandwidth interference from the other million devices on the planet's surface. Once you're communicating regularly outside of the atmosphere, it genuinely would be like trying to have a conversation in a nightclub with construction work going on outside in terms of getting a viable signal.

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Cute, but technically silly. There's no reason filtering, channel selection — and encryption and all that — couldn't be done at a pre-conscious level. – mattdm Jan 11 at 13:52
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@mattdm I'm not sure only having the repeating scream of a pulsar in my subconscious is "better", but I accept your point. – deworde Jan 11 at 14:23
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@mattdm A more serious version of this post would be that EM noise and interference in "populated space" would make radio communication far less useful than it seems to us within atmosphere, and certainly worthless for day-to-day communication. But psychopathic droids was funnier. – deworde Jan 11 at 14:23
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Maybe this is why C-3PO hates flying? – 16807 Jan 11 at 18:30
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Note that having done some research, this apparently only passes the "sounds plausible" technobabble test, but it's good enough for Star Wars. – deworde Jan 11 at 19:00

Another answer which will be mostly speculation:

People want to restrict droids abiltiy to interface and communicate.

As seen through the use of "restraining bolts", droids are highly autonomous, and flesh beings have to constantly fear a rebellion. As such they don't want droids to communicate in a manner which is unobservable.

Another posssible supporting point for this comes from episode 1-3: Apparently the trade federation, routes all it's droid computation power through a single space station. Why would they do that? After all, just destroying that one station would cause the entire army to fail.

The answer is controll. The federation is deadly affraid that their droids gain an agenda of their own. As such they want to keep the "off-switch" close by and handy.

(This would also explain, why we don't see more droid armies. Other than the Trade federation, nobody is crazy enough to build something so dangerous.)

Binary is a compromise: A language that is easily observable and controllable, but has a higher information density than a normal language.

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Perhaps, although I should correct you that restraining bolts are used more to keep the droid from running away – thegreatjedi Jan 11 at 9:40
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R2-D2 predates Clone Wars and wasn't built by Trade Federation – DVK-in-exile Jan 11 at 12:05
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@DVK Sorry if that wasn't clear: These two sentences are meant to be two seperate cases. – TheSexyMenhir Jan 11 at 15:06
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Shortly after the droid control ship was blown up over Naboo in The Phantom Menace, the Trade Federation started making autonomous B-1 battle droids, as evidenced in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. See scifi.stackexchange.com/a/51646/23886 for more information, as well. – TylerH Jan 11 at 16:36
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For the record, the reason (at least the reason given in the additional materials that came with the film) that they had a Droid Control Ship was for financial reasons. – Valorum Jan 11 at 21:54

An answer to What was C-3PO talking about when he said, “That’s funny, the damage doesn’t look as bad from out here.” reminded me that my friends and I were discussing this, and we now have a new headcanon.

Premise:

  • Droids in the Starwars Universe are the most foul mouthed sentients in the galaxy.

Consequences:

  • In order to curb their offensive modes of speech (maybe something to do with their own belief in their inherent superiority combined with their suppressed natural urges) manufacturers had to bleep out so many of their words, that they eventually decided to just restrict them from making any sounds other than bleeps, hence 'binary' was created.

  • Only protocol droids have enough self control to be able to have the 'bleep only' restraints lifted.

  • Few people bother to learn Binary, as most people would be too disturbed by the innovative and creative use of expletives that most droids employ.

Evidence in canon:

C-3PO: I would much rather have gone with Master Luke than stay here with you. I don't know what all this trouble is about, but I'm sure it must be your fault.

[R2 beeps an angry response]

C-3PO: You watch your language!

It must have been particularly bad for C-3PO to actually comment on it. *8')

Even a protocol droid under pressure doesn't always have the self restraint to avoid being insulting when talking to another droid:

C-3PO: Just open the door, you stupid lug!

C-3PO: Stupid little short-circuit! He'll be quite all right.

C-3PO: Don't call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease.

C-3PO: They're not going the wrong way, WE are, you nitwit!

Note, all of the sensible answers presented so far, fail either the realism or the evidence test, so here I offer an option that isn't realistic either, but at least has support in canon and is fun.

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Oh, it now looks like although I wrote this as an amusing aside, there is actually more support in canon for this answer than for any of the others so far, so maybe our headcannon isn't just headcannon after all. *8') – Mark Booth Jan 12 at 14:06
    
I'd really like to watch the movies again with subtitles for everything R2D2 is spouting ;-) – Falco Jan 13 at 10:08
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Wow @Falco, it looks like someone already did. Note: NSFW. – Mark Booth Jan 13 at 10:16
    
@MarkBooth also see i.stack.imgur.com/d21ej.png – SQB Jan 22 at 17:02

I always assumed that "Binary" in Star Wars was intended for local, cross-vendor communication for 'droids. I equate it to POTS telephone communication, using tones to communicate. Doesn't matter who made the phone or what line you're using, the tones are meaningful to other droids, and communication is successful.

Given that R2 units use physical control for Xwings or to interface with "mainframes" (such as the Death Star or the Millenium Falcon), it does not appear to be useful for droid-to-computer communication. Being sound-based, I also assume it is not intended for long distance communication between droids.

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Pretty much. A last resort universal standard, when other forms of communication have failed or are unavailable. R2 and 3PO communicate via audio because they have no standard communication interface. Astromechs and protocol droids would have little reason to interact normally, for the same reason that your power drill doesn't have a standard socket to interface with your laptop. So R2 and 3PO use the standard backup communication medium, which conveniently for the audience lets us see the characters interacting, instead of standing inert and having conversations via some inaudible protocol. – Wolfie Inu Jan 12 at 9:06
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ADSL and VDSL are also just "using tones" to communicate, but instead of only being able to use tones from 300 to 3300 Hz, they use up to 12MHz. – Mark Booth Jan 12 at 14:04

Bandwidth could be another issue with radio communication. One hurtle to wireless communication is keeping devices from talking over each other (remember with digital communication a 1 is a 1, a 0 is a 0, if 2 devices send out a 1 at the same time it doesn't become 2, it just stays 1 to a receiver). Protocols like WiFi will listen, wait for a pause, then attempt to communicate while listening, and if something else began broadcasting while it started communicating it will stop and wait a random amount of time before trying again.

Because of that, the more devices on a channel, the lower the bandwidth/higher congestion. You could have hundreds of thousands of droids all within range of each other or just out of range but still making noise. In this case, the long range of radio actually hurts the problem.

Take by contrast auditory communication. Only devices within a very limited range can hear you and with stereo and processing if you had multiple devices attempting to communicate the receiver could still distinguish the individual signals. Plus, being a droid and not say a navi-computer, it is generally understood that you'll probably be taking orders from an organic so you'll need some language processing and auditory equipment.

Also, who would regulate the spectrum? What would stop a terrorist force from disabling all automated repair functionality on a star destroyer simply by jamming the droid frequency?

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Just like the sound level gets lower as you get farther from the speaker, radio waves get weaker as you get farther from the transmitter. And robots would use adaptive RF levels to speak to others nearby, just like Wifi has dynamic power modulation to automatically reduce power levels when talking with nearby clients just as people reduce their voice when talking to those nearby. – Johnny Jan 12 at 4:58
    
@Johnny True you can decrease power levels and use beam forming to make it directional, however that doesn't stop a bad actor from jamming the radio waves. Maybe within 10 years we'll have technology that lets us better distinguish certain signals from jammed/noisy frequencies by using multiple antennae and analysing the differences in the wave amplitudes. – Erroneous Jan 12 at 15:27
    
What's to stop a bad actor from jamming the sound waves? There's even fewer frequencies to choose from with sound. It's surprisingly hard (and takes incredible energy) to generate a powerful spread spectrum jamming signal that will jam a broad range of frequencies - especially when the jammer is far from the communicators. – Johnny Jan 12 at 15:51
    
@Johnny it is even harder to jam sound waves across the various frequencies unless everyone you are trying to jam is out in plain sight. You aren't trying to jam broad spectrum, just focused droid communication frequencies. Plus sound doesn't actually travel through space. And to my knowledge, while we have examples of the Millenium Falcon jamming communications in ANH, we don't have examples of anyone attempting to "jam" audio in SW. – Erroneous Jan 12 at 16:28
    
If someone is jamming your ship at every frequency from 0 Hz -10 Thz with enough power to disrupt short-range communications, you'll hear it since the walls of your ship will be shaking from the RF noise. (and will probably soon start overheating due to all of the energy they are absorbing). It's one thing to jam ship to ship communications where the ship is trying to reach a receiver far far away, but quite another to jam communications between robots a couple meters apart when the jammer is far far away. – Johnny Jan 12 at 16:54

I also see multiple reasons, which would lead to the Binary Language:

  1. It was simply the first open standard, which is basically still supported by everyone to be downward compatible. Compare in our world the file format CSV, it is horrible, error prone and outdated, I still see communication-channels between major companies which use it to transfer data. Simply because it was there.

  2. Only standard without major patent infringement problems. If you look at modern smartphones or devices, a big chunk of the overall cost goes to licensing fees. Producers have to evaluate supporting standards like 4G or NFC, because if they do, they have to pay various licenses to the patent-holders of this technologies. Without special fair-use laws, maybe supporting any mobile wireless communication of another vendor is just too expensive in licensing fees.

  3. Anti-Virus / Hacking. We see not much of electronic warfare in Star Wars, although almost everything runs on computers and droids. Especially for a small rebel force hacking enemy droids or ships would be a preferred tactic. R2D2 is an astromech droid used in space battles. Since droids are a lot more complex then computers in our time, I would infer that anti-virus software is even more complex - so the most secure way is to keep your droids offline! The only interface to communicate with other devices is either a direct hardware link, initiated by your droid, or Binary, which is a limited set of commands - and which can be overheard by people around. No one can silently hack your droid, even if it were possible over the binary interface - they would have to get close enough and talk in binary to your droid and you could stop them.

As for why they speak in binary to humans and not basic - maybe in the droid business binary is even more universally known by engineers across the galaxy than basic ? Maybe it is a lot easier to learn?

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When I read this question I realized that there's always been a story behind it in my head. As a programmer it makes sense to me, so I'll put it out there, even though I don't know if it conflicts with cannon:

Imagine you're developing a droid. You need some way of debugging it. Normally you hook it up to the development system in order to push your updates to it (It's faster than doing it wirelessly), and at the same time you can download and review the debug log. But you also want a simple, fast way to get notified of certain events when the robot is autonomous.

Now keep in mind this is a very very basic droid, a low-end model that just has very basic ship repair functions. It's something that could easily be built into the ship itself, but since it relies on an expensive AI processor to effect repairs without human assistance, it actually saves some money if it can be moved around from ship to ship as needed, and since it already has the AI, it saves time if it can wheel itself around using a rudimentary locomotion system.

So given that the droid doesn't have a speech processor, the simplest way to get debugging feedback is to have it beep. You come up with a system using different beeps to indicate different machine states. It's an great time saver! You even get creative with it, creating intonations that resonate in a human way to some of internal states, for example lower tones for when something fails, and higher ones if something works. It's actually way more efficient (and less annoying) than if the thing were to try to talk to you anyway, so it sticks. Since the things break down a lot and the beeps are fairly entertaining, most people leave the droids in debug mode even after the droid is finished and sold.

Ok, now fast forward hundreds or thousands of years later.

The droid design was hugely successful! It was so affordable and useful that it has become a staple of ship design since then, and many pilots couldn't imagine flying a ship without one. Not only that, but they've become attached to the little guys. They tend to use one droid that will follow them from ship to ship. Some people even take the droids home, and find uses for them around the house. They spend so much time with these droids that they get to know the debugging beeps really well. It's sort of a rite of passage that every pilot goes through.

The design has stayed largely unchanged, but of course processors have gotten more efficient over time. The AI now has a sophistication that makes it indistinguishable from sentience. At this point the droids gain free will over a lot of their functionality, including direct control over the debugging beeps. It still allows them to express their inner state, but that inner state is much more complex now, and the fact that most of the people around them seem to understand these beeps, it also gives them a means of interacting with the world in a more complex way.

I like the idea that the purpose and complexity of the binary language slowly evolved along with the robots. It ties in with the feeling of the Star Wars universe, in which all technology feels like it's been around for a long time. People don’t even remember when the droids went from being just tools to having personality, just like our kids won't remember when phones where just for phone calls.

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A decent hypothesis, though it's likely still far from being the indisputed conclusion. I take issue with the adoption and initial uptake though - Organics on Earth have demonstrated a tendency for greater intuitiveness, simplicity and reduced learning curves over functional usefulness. In fact, we have demonstrated intense hatred of living with bleeping machines who do nothing but beep all day for days on end...How does that transition into galactic common usage? – thegreatjedi Jan 14 at 3:04
    
@thegreatjedi Simple, make the beeps "cute". That triggers a empathy reaction rather than an annoyance reaction. I see your point though-- maybe it would make more sense that the droids were originally sold in silent "release" mode, but with sentience the droids gained the ability to put themselves into debug mode in order to be heard. And some kind of droid rights laws prevented people from turning that off again... – adsilcott Jan 14 at 19:43

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