Someone on Facebook was bemoaning the robotic slavery inherent in the Star Wars movies recently, which got me thinking: is C3PO a tool or a slave?
When I watched Star Wars in late 1977, I wasn’t aware of the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Although ‘robot’ comes from the Czech word for ‘forced labour’, the robots of the popular culture of my youth (like ‘Robot’ in Lost in Space and Twiki in Buck Rogers) were clearly mechanical tools, not self-aware entities that felt their inherent freedom of choice was being unfairly constrained.
And the same seemed to go for the robots in Star Wars. It looked like they enjoyed their work, it's true. C3PO in particular loved facilitating human/cyborg relations and R2 was never happier than when rooting around inside an X-Wing under fire. It may have been because they took 'sentient' pleasure in their work, but it's just as likely it was because they were made that way.
And similarly, both of them displayed individual personalities, but that's not proof either. It may simply have been the way robots were programmed in that galaxy, to make them more accessible to their human users.
Both C3PO and R2D2 were able to operate apparently autonomously - although in the case of R2D2, it was under secret orders to deliver a holo-message to a certain Jedi Knight. But that doesn't mean they were slaves. And it can't even be argued that the robots in Star Wars were used as a 'metaphor' for slavery, because 'human' slaves were clearly depicted in the movies: Annakin and his mother were slaves and so too – briefly – was Princess Leia.
C3PO and R2D2 also did their bit in battles, bashing unwary stormtroopers, but all that demonstrates is that this galaxy far, far away never heard of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. A robot may harm a human, it seems. Certainly our two mechanical heroes are mistreated. They’re stolen by Jawas, reconditioned, reprogrammed and resold. But this doesn’t feel like slavery either. It’s more like some automotive chop shop.
I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but it seems to me C3PO isn't a person, he's just a bit of a tool.
This article originally appeared in the 'Planet Geek' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here - http://eepurl.com/btvru1