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Star Wars, artificial intelligence and slavery

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Today I want to talk about artificial intelligence, Star Wars and the ethics of slavery. I don't know if this has been talked about anywhere but it wouldn't surprise me. It's not the first time George Lucas has been in trouble for racial stereotyping.

Aside from Jar Jar Binks being the most irritating character in the history of anything ever, there were early complaints that his voice was a horribly offensive throwback to the black and white minstrel/Uncle Remus era. Some people even complained that Watto, the flying slug/wasp parts store owner from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was a nasty caricature of a Jewish merchant because of his greed, accent, beard, hat and sloped nose (or trunk).

But let's think back to the day the Sandcrawler pulls up at the Lars farm. The assorted wares were lined up, their virtues extolled by the scavenging jawas hoping for a good price even though the pickings were slim. As Luke pointed out, not only did their original choice have a bad motivator, he later suspects they've unwittingly bought stolen goods.

It didn't hit me until recently, but what does that scene remind you of if not a covered wagon criss-crossing the pre-civil war American South, selling cages full of kidnapped Africans stolen from their homeland?

Don't be ridiculous, you might say, we're talking about robots, inanimate beings. As the Starfleet council rules in the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man while deliberating on Data's right to self determination, they're no more important than toasters.

And sure, we're upset every time Artoo gets his head blown off, but that's because we tend to anthropomorphise technology just like we do nature. In fact Artoo gets shot through the dome so many times it's a wonder he's not the one with an anxiety disorder rather than Threepio.

But look again from the droids' point of view. A droid in the dungeon of Jabba's palace is turned upside down so it can be tortured with hot brands applied to its feet. A medical droid tells Luke to take care with his bionic hand, to which the young Jedi-to-be politely responds. Chewbacca roars in anger at a mouse droid on the Death Star and it skitters off in terror. Robots are portrayed as sentient beings with feelings throughout the Star Wars canon. They're everything from servants to bounty hunters across the spectrum from good to evil.

And none are more human than Artoo and Threepio. What sort of software engineer would program Threepio's AI matrix to make him so whiny? Or make Artoo so chirpy and loyal, like a little lost dog? You've never heard a car, PC or electric drill complain of fatigue, its joints almost frozen. As a gurney lowers Threepio into an oil bath and he says it's going to feel 'so good' (while thanking 'The Maker', no less), he sounds like a human sinking into a bubble bath after a long day.

Then there's the whole thorny issue of people as chattel to be bought and sold. Watch Artoo's reaction once more when Owen buys Threepio and think back to Uncle Tom's Cabin. When the Shelbys tell Eliza her son Harry is to be sold to cover debts looming over the farm, the grief-stricken maid takes the boy and flees.

The sale scene in Star Wars is even sadder. Artoo beeps and whistles loudly in protest, losing the friend he's been through so much with. Threepio, knowing neither of them are any more than private property, can only look on, knowing there's no fighting their fate. A jawa even runs up to Artoo to silence him with some electronic tool, perhaps the droid seller version of a whip in a galaxy far, far away.

Thankfully the red R2 unit blows up and Threepio suggests to Luke that Artoo is a real bargain. The friends are reunited, but then what fate awaits them? The restraining bolt, a device attached to the outer shell of a droid that apparently restricts its movement away from the moisture farm/plantation, no different than the cages, manacles or fear of violence that subdued the slaves.

Or am I reading into all this too deeply?

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