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Anyone who has written software with any complexity knows the importance of logging clearly readable error messages to make debugging easier. Cryptic or short error messages like "Error #5" won't work.

Part of an astromech's job is troubleshooting, which can often involve reporting errors or issues to a mechanic, which often could be a living being. Astromech droids, at least the R2 models, can parse at least some spoken languages, since R2-D2's comments are displayed to Luke so he can read them on the screen in his X-wing. Astromech droids already have a speaker they can beep through, so providing speech for them would be trivial.

I looked through the Wookiepedia, but didn't find anything in the R2 or astromech articles about why they don't have speech abilities. While the article on astromechs covers the topic of communication, it never explains why they can't speak.

I know when Star Wars was written and released, it was well before any practical speech synthesis systems were available, but almost everything in the Star Wars universe has been either retconned or rationalized.

Is there ever any in-universe reason given for why R2-D2 or other astromech droids cannot speak?


Let me clarify a couple points, since, even though I included some of this previously it was misunderstood. (I didn't think I'd have to spell it all out specifically -- sorry about that.)

  • Astromech droids can understand language (presumably, or at least, Galactic Basic Standard) spoken to them.
  • Astromech droids (at least R2-D2) can respond by using language, as shown in The Empire Strikes Back, when R2-D2's comments are displayed on a cockpit screen for Luke.
  • The previous two points show that astromechs (at least R2 units) have full language processing abilities, both to understand and to make themselves understood.
  • Astromech droids can make sounds, as has been demonstrated so often.

So all that is needed for astromech droids to speek is a table of phonemes so it can match the words it wants to use with the phonemes to play back. Compared to all the AI software required for a computer to process and respond in any language, and the database for all the words in that language, this requires a very tiny amount of memory.

Therefore the cost of onboard speech for a droid or computer that can already process language is very small, since 99.5% of the software and hardware is already included.

Now for the troubleshooting aspect. If you've never had to do any software or hardware debugging with systems that can provide error messages (and, after retiring from my own software business, I've done a lot of that), there are a few points to know:

  • Spaceships can be forced down or crash on planets without technology (can you say, "Dagobah?"), so it is entirely possible a pilot (and crew) could die if proper debugging tools are not available after the craft has been damaged.
  • Depending on a third piece of software, such as a protocol droid, could be a fatal error, since one may not be available in many situations that are certainly well within the range of expected and likely possibility.
  • Depending on computer systems that are part of the damaged spacecraft one is trying to troubleshoot (such as a cockpit display screen for interaction) when that isn't necessary can also be a fatal error since that system can be damaged.
  • When you're debugging or troubleshooting, relying on a display screen instead of simple verbal responses can be difficult at best. (Picture having to work on an engine of an x-wing and needing to continually climb into and out of the cockpit to read a screen while you're calibrating something!)

In other words, the "going around my thumb to get to my elbow" approach of forcing a downed pilot, or one on a not-so-up-to-date planet, to have a protocol droid or to use display screens on the ship one is trying to fix could lead to depending on damaged equipment that could make repairs impossible. This could easily be avoided by providing speech on astromech droids.

Sorry for all the extra blather, but I get the feeling people are ignoring these important points that are part of the problem.

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I asked him this. He said, "wheep wheep whooo wheep". Hope this helps. –  Wikis Dec 26 '11 at 20:52
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I hate when R2D2 is spelled Artoo Deetoo –  OghmaOsiris Dec 27 '11 at 3:42
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@OghmaOsiris: Then don't spell it that way. –  Tango Dec 27 '11 at 3:52
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Clearly it was a marketing ploy. Now to communicate with your R2 unit, the owner also needs to buy a 3PO unit (human-robot relations[I know the line is different in the movie. I don't care; The writers were being stupid.]) to translate for you, doubling the sale of droids. –  Lèse majesté Dec 27 '11 at 6:09
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Okay, this answer may bring a smile to your face: plus.google.com/103369295503420571401/posts/FHftExdjPrJ –  Cronco Dec 29 '11 at 15:38

9 Answers 9

up vote 52 down vote accepted

A number of possible reasons.

The most obvious, but not very convincing:

  • R2 is an early model astromech designed to perform mechanical work and interface with other droids rather than humans. Exception is when an R2 is slotted into a starfighter. But even then, it mostly monitors the craft's systems and obeys the pilot. On those occasions when it needs to reply, it can flash a message on the screen without interrupting pilot chatter.

Another possible, but unconvincing answer:

  • Industrial Automaton packed R2 with so many features, from troubleshooting to the ability to work with 700 different types of spacecraft, a large sensor package, a holographic recorder etc. Adding an occasionally used speech module would have simply added to the cost.

But my preferred reason:

  • Astromech droids were, above all else, first responders, troubleshooters and fixers. They had to think on their feet, improvise and be persistent (in Phantom Menace, R2 units were continuing to repair Padme's ship even as they were being picked off by enemy fire). This is probably why IA put an unusual amount of effort into building its personality matrix [see wikia article].
  • The downside of this was that they tended to be headstrong and opinionated (much like any human techie). This is why the periodic memory wipes were required. Now imagine--quite apart from the oddity of a non-humanoid droid talking--a repair droid offering opinions at every step of the way, or questioning its master. This is probably why it was often seen coupled with protocol droids (C-3PO referred to R2D2 as his counterpart) -- to keep it in check and as a diplomatic filter. Judging from how often 3PO had to argue with R2, I think not adding a speech module was an excellent decision. If I were an owner, I'd take a cute, clever, beeping droid over a wisecracking, argumentative one any day.
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Can you imagine if Han had to hear from R2 about the shape of his ship... R2 would have gotten blasted. –  Chad Dec 28 '11 at 19:41
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Also, R2 can speak. If you watch the movies, those beeps and whistles seems to form a language of it's own. And if I recall correctly, I think that's exactly how the old WEG RPG treated it. –  Daniel Bingham Dec 29 '11 at 15:33
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I don't think there is a technological reason for this missing feature and I feel like a lot of the other answers here are written without careful consideration. I think, in the long run, it's one of Lucas' ideas that just isn't supported by science, but you do a good job at presenting a rational reason why this may be so. Thank you for the thought and effort you put into your answer. –  Tango Dec 29 '11 at 16:25
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I like your last answer. Not enough space or too much cost shouldn't be an issue, as today even the cheapest cell phones can have speech synthesizers, while the level of AI those droids had is still high above our current technological level. –  vsz Dec 29 '11 at 19:15
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@Lohoris: 'Binary' is the language name, not a description of how he's talking. –  Jeff Jan 22 at 20:51

I would make a guess that the reason is they rarely need to talk to humans - yes it is a possibility, as you point out, for which they have a readout, but most of the time they only need to comunicate with other robots. In such a case, providing speech facilities would not be worth while.

The feed for the display may be a far simpler one than the feed for the communication module - in normal working, a standard set of messages to be utilised for telling a human what is wrong.

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But with an onboard speaker that already works, the hard part about a fed for a comm module would be in parsing and phrasing the language. –  Tango Dec 26 '11 at 22:00
    
Maybe the terminology needed extra work? Maybe the provision of a speech module is not straightforward even then? The problems are (today) the production of the words, not the speaking of them. –  Schroedingers Cat Dec 27 '11 at 10:36
    
They've already done the work for other droids, like C3PO, so implementing it for astromechs would be trivial. –  Tango Dec 27 '11 at 17:13
    
Maybe, or maybe not. The provision may be difficult, and so is only used for up-market droids like C3PO. We don't know. –  Schroedingers Cat Dec 27 '11 at 17:42
    
They already have the language abilities in R2, as shown by his conversation with Luke, so the hard work is there. The rest is easy. As a programmer, I can tell you, it is easy and low memory compared to being able to put sentences together. –  Tango Dec 27 '11 at 19:30

Most R2 units (at least, as portrayed in the movies, where R2 is an exception) spend very little time interacting with human/non-human company. Their responsibilities lie in operation and repair of the space vessels they accompany (from snubfighters to large ships). Since their role normally consists of operating either with a ship via physical interfaces -- and humans/non-humans via said ship systems -- or with other droids, a speech module would provide little benefit.

Communicating with other droids is likely more efficient with a multi-tonal digital sound stream, which isn't slowed down by the inefficiencies of organic sound production (e.g. vocal chords and mouth muscle re-alignment). Given the range of tones R2 is shown to be capable of producing, the actual informational bandwidth of a sound stream is likely much higher than normal vocalized communication.

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But the vocals are such a simple thing to add and would make all the difference in many repair and troubleshooting situations -- mechs wouldn't have to keep checking a cockpit screen for readouts and for a downed pilot, it could make the difference between making repairs or not making them. –  Tango Dec 28 '11 at 6:42

I am speculating, but perhaps it isn't seen as "proper" for R2 units to show personality. In the same way people avoid giving proper names to animals they don't intend to adopt (or do intend to eat). Astromech droids seem to have a fairly high mortality rate, and they are used in dangerous situations. Perhaps it is the case that they avoid giving Astromech droids a voice because they don't want to further anthropomorphize or humanize the droid so there would be no hesitation to sacrifice it/treat it like a tool in battle.

R2 (and Luke & friends) of course are a little different. But standard practices/mores could have been less permissive. A diplomatic/protocol droid would be different as human communication would be part of its standard toolset.

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This is the most logical explanation. Humanizing droids that are essentially indentured servants/slaves with fairly high mortality rates would be an anti-feature. So they do speak, just not in a human language. –  Lèse majesté May 1 at 3:27

I would suggest that what language would you want the R2 to speak? In order to talk all of the different languages aliens have, you would require a substantial amount of resources (hence why there is a protocol droid). I would think that R2s language is closer to a machine language.

Also, many computer systems operate off our noise (think modems), and thus the language that the R2 speaks may in fact provide some interfacing capabilities.

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Oh, I don't know, say, uh, Galactic Basic Standard: starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Galactic_Standard. –  Tango Dec 28 '11 at 3:11

It comes down to buying what you need. In general, you do not spend money on utility items for extras. And astromechs are utility items.

Astromechs do not normally interact directly with people. They work with ships and interface with computers. When the astromech needs to communicate it can interface with the computer and send the message to one of the consoles. Also protocol droids are not cheap. So to build in the protocol technology into a droid that does not normally need the ability would be wasteful. It would be cheaper to just buy a astromech with no protocol chip or vocabulator. So astromech variations with out the protocal droid programming would be more popular for AI. Especially when you consider a Cruiser will have hundreds, perhaps thousands of Astromechs.

Used astromechs are most likely going to come from surplus or replaced capitol ships because thats what the majority of them will be purchased for. Then they are repurposed for specific needs by slicers.

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Many of the points in your answer are covered in the question. –  Tango Dec 28 '11 at 19:59

Here is a possible answer: In our world, user interfaces that are meant to be used only by professionals are often difficult or impossible for the layman to use. Examples include the navigation system of a modern aircraft, or even paper systems like medical procedure codes.

Extending that to R2D2, it would make a lot of sense for him to communicate in a manner that is useful for professionals, but inaccessible to laymen. In that scenario, anyone who needed to communicate with him would simply be trained to understand his beeping language. His language would be designed to be more precise than any human language, not subject to misinterpretation.

Still sounds farfetched that he wouldn't also have human language capability? In our world Garmin makes both consumer GPS's and GPS's for aircraft. Aircraft GPS don't have a consumer-friendly mode. Professionals are just expected to master the professional-level user interface.

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You know, we have basic speech synthesis now. My phone has SIRI, for example. We can put this technology anywhere we like, but it's not always useful.

When my car breaks down, there's no need for it to start telling me that it's detected a fault somewhere around the fuel intake. What the hell am I going to do about it? My garage doesn't need to converse with it, either. They just plug in a small display and get detailed information about what the possible problem might be.

Human-speech capability is designed for people with zero technical knowledge, as a way to interface with complex technology. Like a Protocol droid, for example. An R2 unit, designed for use in the vacuum of space, speaks with the machines it's trying to repair, or with other droids. It needs human-speech capability about as much as my microwave does.

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R2-D2 does speak - "he" speaks Binary - a language that is apparently easily understood by many machines.

In the Star Wars EU novels, Luke at one point (I don't quite remember where) mentions that he does understand Artoo somewhat, having learned to do so over the years.

My view of this is that an astromech droid has to be good at fixing things, and talking to other machines is a necessity for that in the SW universe, hence Binary. Binary can also be understood by those biologicals who work with them regularly, so there is no need for intermediaries such as translator droids unless they have to interact with those who don't understand Binary. Since some biologicals understand Binary, there is no need for an astromech to speak anything else. Since translator droids exist and some speak "over six million languages", it seems unlikely that it would be possible to program an astromech droid - whose memory must be filled with schematic, diagnostic and repair software - to be even a reasonable linguist without sacrificing some other capabilities. It may well be that the module used to produce audible Binary language is not capable of producing the full range of sounds needed to emulate human language. AFAIK, we don't know what species made Artoo - it may not be human, and they may have programmed their droids to speak their language as well as Binary, but their language is even less understandable to humans than Binary...

If you look at the relationship between Chewbacca and other characters, Han clearly understands him, but many others do not, and Chewbacca himself appears able to understand many more languages than he is physiologically able to speak. This is not treated as being unusual, and Chewbacca does not go about carrying or using a translator as a matter of course. The situations appear to be quite similar.

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