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L3-37 and the Free Will of Droids

L3-37 and the Free Will of Droids

Ever since its inception, one of the key elements of Star Wars has been the droids. R2-D2 and C-3PO were the original iconic droids of the franchise. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and began producing new Star Wars movies, more iconic droids joined the franchise. The Force Awakens delivered BB-8. Next, Rogue One debuted K-2SO. Finally, Solo introduced L3-37 to audiences. I previously explored the notion of droid rights and free will while asking whether Threepio deserved to have his memory wiped. The roles of the new droids of the franchise, particularly L3-37, contribute additional context to the discussion.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi..BB-8..Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd. ..© 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

BB-8 – The Beloved Family Pet

Compared to the droids of the original trilogy, BB-8 is most like R2-D2. Some might compare him to the family dog. He is fiercely loyal to Poe and the Resistance. Furthermore, when the First Order arrived on Jakku, Poe entrusted him with the completion of his mission. Later, in The Last Jedi, BB-8 demonstrates his loyalty to the cause and rescues Finn and Rose from execution aboard the Supremacy. When he reunites with Poe on Crait, Poe gives him an affectionate belly rub.

As one can see, BB-8 displays plenty of human-like behavior. However, is the source of this behavior the result of programming or something more? It is hard to say one way or the other. Another notable event occurs when Unkar Plutt attempts to purchase BB-8 from Rey. Even though BB-8 doesn’t belong to her, Rey considers the offer for a second. This reinforces the notion that even the heroes frequently think of the droids as nothing more than property.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Photo credit: Lucasfilm/ILM, ©2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

K-2SO – The Loyal Soldier

K-2SO is an interesting contrast to Artoo and Threepio. Like Threepio, he has a tendency to say whatever on his mind. Unlike Threepio, he isn’t particularly concerned with protocol. Similar to BB-8, K-2SO is very loyal to his master, Cassian Andor. In fact, K-2SO goes so far as to sacrifice himself for Cassian and Jyn when they are cornered on Scarif.

The issue K-2SO raises is whether droids really have any free will or are slaves to their own programming. In Rogue One, it is noted that K-2SO is a reprogrammed Imperial droid. That story was told in the comic Cassian & K-2SO. While on a mission, Cassian reprogrammed K-2SO. Despite his best efforts, it took Cassian multiple attempts to get that programming to stick. Regardless, it is important to note that this suggest a droid acts only in accordance with its programming, and that programming is subject to change by the hand of another. Although, it is equally important to note that K-2SO’s sacrifice shocked Cassian. Therefore, perhaps droids are capable of acts of free will after all.

Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is L3-37 in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

L3-37 – The Self-Made Droid

L3-37 is in a class all her own. For one, she is self-made from astromech and protocol droid parts. How exactly this happened is unexplained, but it is remarkable. She is very loyal to Lando Calrissian, but she is also a champion for droid rights. For instance, at the Lodge located at Fort Ypso on Vandar-1, L3-37 anxiously encourages the droids fighting in Ralakili’s arena to stop and take control of their existence. In addition, she freely complained about unequal rights for droids and other sentient beings in the galaxy. This greatly annoyed Lando.

Her defining moments arrived on Kessel. After freeing a droid from its restraining bolt, she inadvertently started a liberation movement. One droid after another gleefully celebrated its freedom and then actively freed other droids. This may be explained in at least two ways. One, droid programming abhors restraining bolts. Two, droids are something more than their programming and desire freedom from such restrictions on their liberty. There might be other possible explanations.

The fact that the droids openly rebelled against the Pikes that restrained them suggests there is more to them than their programming. Active rebel programming seems dangerous, and especially so after the Clone Wars. If anything, droids should be compliant to their masters. Items such as restraining bolts should be unnecessary. 

Concluding Thoughts on Droid Rights and Free Will

Whether droids are simply the function of their programming or something more is an open question. Much of their behavior might be attributable to programming. Obedience, for instance, is likely the result of a programmed routine. Finding certain actions abhorrent is another possible function of programming. Threepio, after all, was incapable of impersonating a deity. It was against his programming.

Still, droids do a great many things and exhibit behaviors that programming has a hard time explaining. A desire for freedom is one such thing. One might argue that freedom seeking behavior is really the result of survival programming. However, a droid doesn’t require freedom to exist and persevere. In fact, freedom seeking behavior likely runs counter to other programming and would likely lead to deactivation and reprogramming.

In Star Wars, droid behavior simply isn’t consistent. The nearly mindless B-1 battle droids of The Phantom Menace were slaves to droid control ships. On the opposite end of the spectrum was L3-37 with her desire for equal rights and freedom for all droids. The new droids of the Star Wars saga have a lot to offer to the discussion of droid free will.

Thanks for reading. Contact me at dkeithly@coffeewithkenobi.com or on Twitter @DJKver2. You can also find me on my podcast: Starships, Sabers, and Scoundrels.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Coffee With Kenobi, its hosts, respective writers, or its affiliates.

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2 Comments

  1. Barry
    July 24, 2018 at 00:36 Reply

    I think one thing we have to do is separate droid behavior and characteristics in Star Wars with what we’ve become accustomed to in androids and holograms from Star Trek like Data and the Voyager Doctor. While the Star Wars droids seem to have been programmed with personality quirks to make them more compatible interacting with humans (as by design a protocol droid would), there still is a heavy reliance on the fact that they are built, bought, sold, programmed, reprogrammed, memory wiped and scrapped like any other smart toaster. C-3PO and BB-8 are amusing and R2-D2 and K2-S0 are “heroic” but each is still considered to be acting as if they were sentient and had actual rights, according to their programming. C-3PO was built by Anakin to help his mom around the house so that’s what he was – a butler (and he became that to the Lars family later on). Artoo was built and ended up on the Naboo royal yacht as a repair astromech. He displayed resourcefulness (and luck) when they all escaped Naboo but there was no higher thought function involved. When Sen. Organa decided Threepio knew too much, he had his memory wiped – no fuss, no muss. It was like rebooting Alexa on a much smarter Amazon Echo. Humans could grow fond of their droids, like they might do with pets, but as a society there was likely no confusion with them having or needing “rights”. And some droids were programmed with a sensation of “pain” (EV-8’s torture room on Jabba’s sail barge and the arena at Fort Ypso) because pain is a signal that you are in the process of damage. A droid might feel pain if a limb was torn off, but it wouldn’t be the same pain we feel – just a highly prioritized programmed algorithm or subroutine that would react in some way to whatever was “hurting” it.

    L3-37 could be considered a wrench in the works, but I believe it was searching for rights because, as a result of its cobbled together construction, its programming made it believe it and others like it were being taken advantage of. Did it develop actual self-awareness, self-preservation and other indications of sentience we’ve come to see from the Androids and holograms in Star Trek? It’s possible, but again the Republic/Imperial/New Republic society didn’t see them that way and treated them as highly programmable, highly adaptable and in some cases highly resourceful Cuisinarts with a Siri interface.

    As much as I’ve loved Artoo and Threepio over the years and do consider them actual characters in the stories, as well as the newer droids, I think we have to consider them in the context of the actual environment in which they exist – not the one we are accustomed to of Star Trek where androids can be considered people and do have certain rights, or in our own where such questions are now being seriously raised.

  2. MelindaW
    July 24, 2018 at 08:31 Reply

    Well, Dennis, BB-8 might take exception to being deemed the “family pet”. 😉

    Always an integral part of the Saga the droids are. And, I might point out — the real heroes of the Saga, from time to time. 😉

    You know, Dennis, when Unkar Plutt tells Rey he would like to purchase that roly-poly droid situated beside her, I don’t think Rey looks on BB-8 as something she (or anyone else, for that matter) possesses, and as such can buy and sell the droid at will. Examine that look on Rey’s face while she contemplates — not selling BB-8 — but BB-8 himself. I believe Rey’s latent Force sensitivity gives her pause to consider BB-8 and his true purpose. Rey may not be able to discern from where these feelings are coming, but they certainly give her pause to decide that BB-8 is best kept with her, at least for the time being.

    (Isn’t it interesting how we use pronouns such as “he/his” and “she/her” rather than “it” when referring to the droids? 😉 )

    This is such a great blog about the main droids of Star Wars, Dennis, and whether they truly have any free will. As machines, do they truly have any free will at all? After all, their programming should denote that they act only in certain ways. R2-D2 very well could have been programmed to react accordingly when those “in his charge” were in peril. How else would he have saved Padme when she found herself about to be boiled, Obi-Wan and Anakin when they were plummeting to their deaths in the run-amok elevator, Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie when they were caught in the Ewoks’ trap (just to name a few instances)? And yet … don’t at least some of the droids’ actions appear to be prompted by their individual approaches to any given situation? Action vs. reaction? Is each droid taking action? Or is each reacting to a given set of circumstances that they process — faster than my brain can (and I consider myself having pretty darn quick-on-my-feet thinking! 😉 ) process! — and once that processing is done, they react with a particular action (that is pre-programmed)? We may never know the answers to those questions. 😉

    The battle droids never were a personal favorite — simply because they are too mindless. I wouldn’t say they are slaves to do humans’ bidding (although that is exactly what they are programmed to do), but the fact that they do not have the “thinking capacity” of R2, 3PO, K2SO, BB-8 and L3 leaves little to be desired, in my opinion. Think about it — even the mouse droid “knew” enough to skedaddle after Chewie roared at it (in ANH). The battle droids don’t “have the sense” to get out of the way when the AATs and the like come barreling down on them!

    From a philosophical point of view, I love what all the droids represent. They are humans in metal form (on some levels). They are so capable, and can get away with so much more than we mere humans can (in some situations) simply because they are machines. Akin to AI, it certainly gives one pause (and then some!) to consider just what we’re creating. What are the good — and bad — ramifications of that which we humans create???

    Great blog, Dennis! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about some of our new, beloved characters. They certainly have earned their places in the Star Wars Saga. 🙂

    MTFBWY 🙂

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