Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cybernetic Slavery in the New Republic

Are the droids in the Star Wars series effectively slaves? Here's a writer who thinks so:

Are Droids Slaves?

He's also a major proponent of the thesis that the Empire's rulers are really the good guys and the Jedi are villains, but he does have a point about the droids. He highlights the difference between the sapient droids who appear as actual characters and the apparently mindless robots sometimes found scooting around ships and stations. Droids such as C-3PO definitely have not only intelligence but self-awareness and emotions. It's harder to be sure of the latter with R2-D2, since we can't understand his communications; we have to depend on other characters' interpretations of his beeps. But he does appear to have a personality. As Jonathan Last, writer of that essay, mentions, C-3PO and R2-D2 certainly seem eager to escape from the Jawa "slave traders" and have been fitted with restraining bolts to keep them under control. So they have desires and, apparently, free will.

My first reaction was that the droids are human-made machines, subject to their programming. On Earth, human slaves aren't the manufactured products of their "masters," so the two situations aren't the same. Last doesn't address this point directly. He does, however, seem to maintain that, even though they're machines, the droids transcend their programming, as in his comment on the torture scene in THE RETURN OF THE JEDI: "Again, if they did not have free will and sentience they would not need to be taught 'respect.' It could simply be programmed." Somehow they've developed self-awareness and the power of choice. All droids? Or only the few that we meet as characters? It's worth noting that in the Clone Wars cartoon series, military droids seem as free-willed (and prone to error) as any humanoid soldier.

Were the sapient droids deliberately programmed to have free will? If so, how can it be "free"? If not, did they evolve this quality on their own somehow? In Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, the moon colony's ruling computer complex acquired so many connections through its Luna-wide network that it reached critical mass and awoke as a self-aware person, Mike. This method of becoming sapient can't apply to the Star Wars droids, whose brains aren't nearly large enough. Maybe in the Star Wars universe the original design of advanced models included the ability to make decisions and choices in order to carry out their duties without constant supervision, and this feature grew into self-awareness.

Could a computer or a robot in our world eventually become a true AI and develop consciousness and free will? Of course, classical behaviorists would have claimed human beings don't have free will, either. Nowadays, some psychologists and neurologists theorize that consciousness is an illusion. (An idea that doesn't make sense to me—if consciousness in the sense we commonly understand it doesn't exist, who is experiencing the "illusion"?) Last validly points out that if robots act self-aware—the only way we can confirm that other human beings have consciousness, either, in the absence of telepathy—they're people and shouldn't be enslaved.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. Is self-awareness the test for legal personhood? Or is being able to support oneself? I personally know a self-aware chimpanzee, but I don't think he should be a legal person. Here's more on the soul, consciousness and legal rights:

  2. Good question! Thanks for the link. (But I don't think "ability to support oneself" should be it -- that would exclude all children and many mentally disabled people from "personhood.")