The Intelligent Life of Droids

If robots can be devious, self-righteous, and expressive, why not sentient?

Alan Jern | NAUTILUS

Markus Wissman / Shutterstock

When we first meet L3, Lando Calrissian’s droid co-pilot in the 2018 film Solo: A Star Wars Story, she’s railing against a brutal droid-on-droid cage match in a cantina: “How can you condone this savagery?! Droid rights! We are sentient!”

When I first saw Solo, my reaction to L3 was mixed. I was thrilled to finally see a character in Star Wars saying out loud what I had been thinking for years: Wasn’t it obvious that droids are sentient—that is, that they have minds just like us? But I was also mildly annoyed that it had taken so long for someone to acknowledge this on screen, after droids had been weirdly treated like mere property in the Star Wars galaxy for decades.

L3’s companions collectively roll their eyes at her call for droid liberation, and it would appear they weren’t the only ones. The Mandalorian debuted one year later, and even though the TV series is set 19 years after Solo in the Star Wars chronology, it depicts a world, or a galaxy, that doesn’t seem to have improved for droids. Underscoring this point, the star of the series, known as Mando, has a deep mistrust bordering on disdain for droids, illustrated in the very first episode by his insistence on riding in a rickety human-piloted speeder over a superior droid-piloted one.

Mando’s disdain for droids starkly contrasts with how we, as viewers, think of them. Droids like R2-D2 and BB-8 are cute; they seem more like friends than objects of suspicion, and people like Luke, Anakin, and Rey treat them in exactly this way. But do they have minds, like L3 insisted? How exactly should we determine this?

This is more than just a theoretical question. Droids are fictional, of course. But the questions they pose about our relationship to them are very real. We may not encounter a robot like L3 in our world in the near future, but advances in the currently fragmented fields of AI and robotics suggest that something like her could arrive sooner than many realize.

read more