Star Wars: Droids Are Slaves. Why Are We OK With That?


We love R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Well, some folks love them a lot more than I do. R2 is a plot device, essentially a walking sonic screwdriver, a magic “get-out-of-plot-free” card when you have some barrier our heroes shouldn’t be able to get past. Seriously, what the hell is computer science like in that far, far away galaxy, when the most sophisticated security systems in existence can be completely over-ridden simply by plugging an astromech droid into the computer for 2 seconds?

And C-3PO? To me, he’s a far, far more annoying character than Jar Jar Binks ever was. Yeah, I said it.

But we love these droids, and we’re meant to love them. They’re put into jeopardy, and we care about their fate. They do heroic things (well, at least R2), and we applaud. They’re damaged, and we wince, or cry, or whatever. They are our point of view characters for the first 20 minutes of A New Hope!! They save the humans’ hash so many times we lose count (well, at least R2 does). We’re sad when R2 is hurt, and we cheer when R2 is all better at the very end of A New Hope!

And yet, they are slaves. We watch as they are bought and sold by slavers, and given away to gangsters without their knowledge or permission. We watch as they are turned off mid-sentence, without warning–and we laugh and applaud!! (See, even the movies themselves think 3PO is annoying!). We watch as “their kind” isn’t served at a place that serves the most wretched scum in the galaxy. We watch as their minds are wiped, without consent! We watch as humanoids use “restraining bolts” to contain and control their slaves. And in the prequel trilogy, thousands–millions?–of droids were used as cannon fodder for years and years, dying in place of humans.

The question, then, is this–are droids sentient? Or are they just appliances? We have no qualms about wiping our PC’s memory, or selling even a cute and interesting waffle iron on Craig’s List. So we need to know–are our “heroes” intelligent beings deserving of rights, or just sophisticated tools? Are they people, albeit, in mechanical form–or are they toasters?

The movies are terribly inconsistent, because Lucas. But the evidence is pretty clearly in favor of “sentient.”

Obviously, you don’t need “restraining bolts” for your Roomba. An appliance doesn’t have free will to override. Your blender isn’t likely to go walkabout. The only reason you’d need a restraining bolt, as opposed to simple programming, is that your droid might want to leave. That surely implies free will. Sentience.

If a droid were just a machine, it wouldn’t get a special audience with the queen thanking it for saving them, as she praises it’s courage. You don’t have a ceremony thanking your car, or your DVR (well, at least I don’t).

Did someone program that tiny little droid on the Death Star to run away screaming when Chewbacca growled at it? If so, someone should fire that programmer…

That by itself doesn’t settle the issue, of course. We use fences to keep livestock from wandering, and praise our pets when they do something cool. Just because droids have some level of intelligence doesn’t automatically mean they’re sentient. Most wouldn’t call keeping sheep or pets slavery (And yes, I acknowledge the arguments of those who do have that position). And we’ve seen cats and dogs scared of crazy stuff before. So maybe droids have some intelligence along with their programming, but only on the level of “dumb animals?”

But the droids also show some pretty amazing critical thinking and problem solving skills. R2 very neatly tricks Luke into removing his restraining bolt, so he can later go looking for Obi-Wan (it helps that Luke is stupid). 3PO deftly comes up with a lie which explains why they’re locked in a control room, and simultaneously gets the stormtroopers to leave. Could the IBM computer Deep Blue have been cajoled to purposely lose to Kasparov if someone told it Kasparov might rip its arms off? That displays a sense of self-awareness that most people presuppose as part of the definition of sentience. It sure looks as if our droids, who argue, reason, analyze, solve, innovate, respond emotionally and manipulate, pass an on-screen Turing test.

It’s really unfair to compare Star Wars to Star Trek, if for no other reason than Trek has had over 700 hours of screen time compared to 14 for Wars. So Trek had the time to devote the occasional hour or so Klingon religion, first contact protocols…or the rights of artificial intelligence. But they did it, more than once.

And maybe it was part of the era, too, as the original trilogy was, whether it likes to admit it or not, very steeped in the ethos of 1960s and 1970s movie and TV sci-fi (including 60s Star Trek). Robots and androids and the like could be characters, but they couldn’t be people. They could be the helpers, or the comedy relief, but they couldn’t be the heroes. Because no matter what, they were “just” machines, and were only one stray electron form going all Westworld on us. We couldn’t conceive of them being “real people.”

So, yeah, Star Trek had the time, and maybe Next Generation came along in a creative era in which it easier to conceive of artificial intelligences being sentient. But let me point out one episode of TNG in particular: The Quality Of Life. A science outpost has developed a new type of robot, Exocomps. These cute little guys couldn’t talk… They just had flashing lights and whistles. They hovered. They did all the dangerous grunt work on a dangerous project. Damned, that all sounds very familiar… Data realized they were sentient, but no one else works believe him. How do you prove your non-talkative little robot is really “alive” and deserving of rights? And besides, they were needed to do important work…I have no proof that writer Naren Shankar was thinking of R2-D2 when he authored this script, but the parallel is too close not to read it as maybe a little critique of Star Wars.

But ultimately, the confusion comes down to George Lucas. In the first 45 minutes of the first movie, he gives us the servants fleeing on a quest for their master, being captured by slavers, sold into servitude, restrained and told to forget their past history, and condemned as being unworthy because of “their kind.” Whether he intended it or not, the metaphor could hardly have been more blunt if the movie were titled 12 Years A Droid. And after that, Lucas did absolutely nothing to follow up on the metaphor…he just left it there, and allowed the human heroes to abuse them.

You’re more than welcome to disagree me. Because then at least we would be having the discussion. You have no idea how many Star Wars fans roll their eyes at me when I bring up this topic, and try to hand-wave this all away, and assert that I’m overthinking things for a fantasy adventure movie.

Fair enough. But before you dismiss me, ask yourself this–why do you care what happens to R2 and 3PO if you don’t believe they’re truly alive? How do you feel about heroes fighting for freedom and liberty while their intelligent companions aren’t recognized as having any rights whatsoever? If positions were reversed, and a villain put an electronic shackle on Luke, or turned Han off with a snap of the fingers, or wiped Leia’s mind…you’d say that was pretty villainous behavior, right? So why is that acceptable for good guys to do that to R2 and 3PO?

Which is why this movie should have been Star Wars Episode VII: The Revolt Of The Droids.

This post originally appeared at SLAY, MONSTROBOT OF THE DEEP!