Star Wars. Nothing has been more successful in geekdom at permeating culture. Do I need to insult my audience by describing this series? It is a massive franchise that spans more content than the majority of fans can absorb, and is one of the most conflicted pieces of science fiction on the perspective of Artificial Intelligence.With the release this weekend of Rogue One, I think this is a perfect time to discuss the subject. This series uses the Droids as good guys, bad guys, side characters, main characters, people, disposable tools, slaves, and subjects of torture. In this post I’m only writing about the original trilogy, as the Battle Droid armies in the prequel trilogy are a different beast altogether, but there’s more than enough meat to dig into with the original trilogy alone.
When we first see R2-D2 and C-3PO in the original Star Wars release in 1977, A New Hope, it is in the opening scene of the iconic attack on a spaceship hovering in space above the desert planet Tatooine. C-3PO is clearly afraid of his own destruction at the hands of the stormtroopers, showing an emotion of fear complicit with a sentient being.
Soon after, our two Droids escape the ship because the stormtroopers that scan their escape pod do not detect life forms. And here is the first instance where we see that people in this world routinely demean and ignore Droids. Despite clear sentience, they are not deemed enough of a threat that the stormtrooper scanners are set to detect if one is present. This is clearly shown to be a mistake, as allowing these droids to escape saves the rebellion, and shows that droids are not considered a threat or equal to the primarily human run societies. This is only compounded by the Jawas that capture C-3PO and R2-D2, and sell them as slaves.
Not looking too happy about that, are we threepio?
We may forget what we’re looking at when it’s a trash can Droid being left at the doorstep of some moisture farmers in the desert, but these Droids are all sentient, have bolts attached to their bodies to shock them and keep them from running away, and are traded for money like livestock.
One of the most absurd moments is early in the third film, Return of the Jedi. As R2-D2 and C-3PO have been sent into the employ of vile gangster Jabba the Hutt, they are taken to a chamber where one droid is administering hot plates to another droid, and that droid is screaming in pain. Despite seeing C-3PO dismembered in Empire Strikes Back, this is the first proof we have that a Droid can feel pain, and that they are sometimes tortured into compliance with their job. C-3PO is visibly disturbed at the scene of torture before him, and yet our intrepid hero Luke never seems to notice the suffering and pain of the Droids in the Star Wars verse.
The parallels to marginalized and enslaved groups in our history are everywhere, but the story never decides to delve deeper into them. As the story goes on, droids continue to be valued friends of the main characters, or simple tools, and their manner of treatment and equality is never brought up in the plot.
Returning to A New Hope, the series really hits you over the head with this Anti-Droid sentiment, in such a way that makes you think that the director George Lucas was going to do something with it but dropped the concept mid-production. The Cantina owner yells out to Luke and his crew that they “don’t serve their kind here”.
Droids have to find the black market data-files to listen to these guys I guess.
The robots? That’s too weird to let into your bar filled with dozens of weird aliens, including one that looks like a werewolf? This bartender demeans the droids by keeping them separate from the rest of society, much like we’ve seen with other attempts at segregation like in Jim Crow America or Nazi Germany.
As we create more and more sophisticated AI, this is a trap we must avoid. Thinking of another sentient creature as lesser than you, be they a different race, species, or even type of creature as it is with robotic AI, this is just plain cruelty.
The original trilogy is amazing by all accounts, but this subject actually detracts from the narrative in some respects. If the rebellion is about rescuing people from the villainous domination of the Empire, then it seems strange to be complicit in the slavery of the Droids.