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‘Star Wars’ and the Future of Artificial Intelligence

Science fiction has considered the question of artificial intelligence since the very beginning — what is the subject of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel Frankenstein if not an artificial intelligence, made from organic parts instead of metal?

Also, everyone who seriously considers the impending arrival of true A.I. thinks about Frankenstein’s monster at some point, and the fearsome lesson about hubris delivered through its tragic story.

Artificial intelligence is a major part of the most popular science fiction tale in the world, the Star Wars saga.  Self-aware machines are all over the place, coming in all shapes and sizes, from tiny machines that display superfluous personality traits — like the “mouse droid” that squeaks and runs away from the imposing Chewbacca in the original film — to droid armies in the prequels, and the Laurel-and-Hardy duo of C-3PO and R2D2.  

The people of the Star Wars universe are absolutely blase about the hordes of thinking machines clattering around them.  Luke Skywalker’s uncle buys intelligent droids from traveling junk dealers without a second thought, on the off chance he might be able to use one around the homestead.  When adult visitors are informed little Anakin Skywalker built Threepio in his spare time, they treat his achievement as very impressive, not a jaw-dropping miracle.  

Evidently the hardware necessary to host a sentient mind is easy to come by, because Anakin and his mother were literally slaves, and wouldn’t have much disposable income.  If all of Threepio’s parts were scavenged, then people in the Star Wars universe discard processors that can run artificial intelligence as casually as modern Americans throw away old smartphones or video games.

The relationship of people to droids in the Star Wars films is one of their most intriguing aspects, because it seems so inconsistent.  Droids are obviously people –– they have full-blown personalities, making them beloved characters for fans of the series — but they’re treated like pets, or perhaps even slaves, by even the noble heroes of the saga.  

Han Solo barely even does Threepio the courtesy of acknowledging his presence, unless it’s to silence him for being annoying.  Luke sets up Threepio and Artoo on a dangerous mission in Return of the Jedi by giving them to Jabba the Hutt as gifts. (It’s likely Artoo was aware of the whole plan, but Threepio most certainly was not.)  

Droids are bought and sold like chattel; at best, they’re treated like pets, regarded much the way a movie cowboy might talk to his favorite horse.  The most droid-friendly character in the film series is probably pilot Poe Dameron from the new The Force Awakens, who seems to sincerely regard his droid BB-8 as a friend and partner.

The interstellar civilization in Star Wars is very, very old — leaving all of the expanded and apocryphal material aside, the first film explicitly tells us the Jedi Knights were guarding peace and justice across the galaxy for a thousand years.  That’s a long time for a society to grow comfortable with a revolutionary development like artificial intelligence.  

It seems as if the people of Star Wars long ago got past all of the questions troubling real-world scientists who see artificial intelligence on the horizon.  There are no concerns about droid civil rights, fears of armed robots staging an uprising, or nagging questions about the morality of forcing self-aware electronic minds into servitude.  If those questions were ever controversial, the controversy was settled many generations ago.

Curiously, the original Star Wars gives us one clear sign of droid-related social stress: the Mos Eisley cantina bartender, who angrily informs Luke and Obi-wan that “we don’t serve their kind here” when they bring Artoo and Threepio into the bar.  There are a lot of other ways a prohibition against having droids in the cantina could have been reasonably phrased — it’s too crowded to have machines plodding around, there’s gambling and droids might help people cheat — but instead it’s a gesture of contempt, evocative of racism.  Of course, Luke’s planet Tatooine is a backwater, and it could have some ugly droid-related recent history the audience doesn’t know about.

One odd detail about Star Wars droids is that it’s apparently very difficult to reprogram them.  At several points in the films, we see droids getting fitted with “restraining bolts” — in essence, slave collars — designed to keep them from running away.  One would think obedience could be guaranteed by simply reprogramming the droid to accept its new master without question… but in Return of the Jedi, we’re shown that Jabba the Hutt actually has a droid torture chamber for dealing with disobedient robots… and a droid evidently runs it.  

The one thing that can apparently be done to influence a droid’s thought processes, without too much trouble, is wiping their memories, which turns out to be the reason Threepio lacks a great deal of information that would have been extremely helpful to Luke Skywalker when meeting him in A New Hope.

For all of its fantasy trappings — and downright absurdities, such as an immobile planet-based superweapon that devours its own star to reload — the Star Wars universe offers a consistent take on the nature of its artificial intelligence, especially the insistence that A.I. personality code cannot be easily rewritten.  Evidently once a droid becomes self-aware, there is only so much that can be done to control its behavior without slapping on a restraining bolt — an interesting point for the writers to insist upon.  Truly free-willed machines are something this society accepts, from the way strangers treat wandering droids like Artoo and BB-8, to the clever detail that one of the bounty hunters Darth Vader hires to hunt our heroes down in The Empire Strikes Back is a droid.

As far as the audience can tell, droids are fairly comfortable with their side of these arrangements — they have emotions and varying degrees of loyalty to their organic owners, but we never see one act bitter about its second-class citizen status or dream of overthrowing its creators.  Perhaps such things happened long ago, and the engineers of the Star Wars universe found ways to program around such violently rebellious instincts (as opposed to, say, the equally ancient and complex fictional universe of the Dune series, where a revolt by A.I. led humanity to strictly outlaw the construction of computers.)  The occasional violent rogue robot might be destroyed — maybe that’s what happened to inspire anti-droid prejudice on Tatooine — but galactic society shrugs that off and rolls along, because droids are so useful.

However, not everyone buys one of these useful machines, which is an interesting, understated detail of the Star Wars series.  Droids aren’t necessarily expensive — Luke’s hardscrabble Uncle Owen buys a pair from the Jawas in A New Hope without acting like it’s an outrageous expense — but many of the major characters show no interest in owning one.  Given how useful they are, and how inexpensive, that seems comparable to a modern American refusing to buy a cell phone… but the droid population we see on-screen is so much smaller than the organic populace that a lot of people must decide to make do without a personal droid.  Rest assured that when consumer-priced robot butlers with advanced artificial intelligence become available at your local Best Buy, they will be hot items.  

Does the evident reluctance of many people in the Star Wars universe to embrace this amazing droid technology suggest an unspoken element of the backstory — a good reason for many people to distrust droids — or is there an element of both human and alien nature that would make some people uncomfortable around A.I., even when it’s been around for over a thousand years?  That’s an interesting idea for modern researchers to ponder.  Instead of blanket social acceptance or rejection, maybe our relationship with A.I. will include a mixture of both, with some people embracing intelligent machines as helpers, pets, or even friends, while others never really get used to them.

The popularity of the droid characters from Star Wars, and the boatloads of money made by selling toy replicas of them, suggests people would love to pal around with a real Artoo, Threepio, or BB-8… but maybe the reality of such a thinking machine, without the sense of control that comes from knowing it’s a toy or special effect, would be a little harder to accept.  Simulated A.I., like the digital assistants Siri and Cortana from Apple and Microsoft, has proven popular, but Siri doesn’t complain like Threepio, and Cortana won’t be wandering off into the wastes in search of old hermits while you’re sleeping.

The Star Wars saga seems cheerfully thoughtless, and even inconsistent, in its treatment of artificial intelligence, more of a fairy tale than science fiction, but maybe it’s actually done a good job of showing how extraordinary technology can become routine with the passage of generations, woven into the social fabric in ways that can seem a little confusing to outsiders.

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