Sunday, June 10, 2018

Solo And Droids

I ran this piece a few years ago, before the debut of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

And lo and behold, thanks to some stuff that happened in Solo, it's become actually relent to the Star Wars movies.

While the piece (reprinted exactly as it was back then, because I'm lazy) obviously can't refer directly to Solo, it does deal with an issue in that movie, and so might be considered an indirect spoiler. And at the very bottom, I'll discuss the events of Solo and how they tie in. So, spoilers ahoy.


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'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.


Well, look at that. A Star Wars movie actually addresses the issue of droid slavery. Sort of kind of.

Of course, they address it in a way that's mainly comedy relief and rudimentary plot complication, and then everyone completely forgets it, so...

Unless you believe that  L3-37 was programmed to be an agitator, or was glitching, that pretty much settles the idea of droid sentience, right? (I mention the "glitching" because Rogue One specifically told us that K-2SO was glitching after being reprogrammed, so anything he did resembling sentience could immediately be written off as merely "cute" and "funny")

Of course, this is a Star Wars movie, so L3's quest for droid freedom is presented almost entirely as comedy relief, and ignored by everyone. Ha ha, L3 goes on and on about droids being slaves, and we laugh and laugh at her being silly. Ha ha she's so obsessed that she frees all the droids and they do cute sabotage things ha ha.

You would have thought that L3's actions--and death--would have had some impact on those present, but Han and Chewie in the future seem to have no more respect for droids, and even Lando doesn't show any reaction to later piloting a ship that has part of L3 in its system (of course, this is why you shouldn't do prequels, because they can never match-up). It doesn't even impact the movie itself, really, because once they finish that Kessel run, the issue is never even hinted at again. L3 is just a dead droid, after all, and we have to focus on crooks killing and scamming each other.

So, mixed bag. And despite L3, droids remain slaves. Yay, Star Wars!


SF said...

I mean, you knew L3 wasn't going to free all the droids, because this was a prequel. I'd say Solo pretty clearly established that droids are slaves, even if it didn't make that the focus of the story. Hell, there are still plenty of biological slaves in the OT timeframe. (Actually, did they establish the kids in TLJ were slaves? If so, then "OT timeframe and beyond.") The Star Wars universe isn't an ideal, there's a lot of things for the heroes to fix. With luck they'll get there someday.

George Chambers said...

Can't add much to this, Snell. Ever since I learned from Episode One that the Republic (and therefore the Jedi) condoned and even encouraged slavery, I've loathed Star Wars; but your critique showed me that I should have loathed it sooner.

Madman2001 said...

Snell, you are certainly wrong on your twitter post showing Superboy melting the Arctic ice. The fact is that, if we assume the ice was floating, then the level of the water would not change at all. If the entire floating Arctic ice mass melted, it would not raise the worldwide sea level.

Here's a link: