Droids are a fascinating piece in the Star Wars universe. There’s seemingly a droid for every possible task, from serving drinks and opening doors to translating languages. Some, like R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), have been with the franchise from the beginning, while others like BB-8 (Ben Schwartz) and IG-11 (Taika Waititi) are new favorites. But are they sentient? The answer is seemingly more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Only it’s not. The answer is yes.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that they are not, which is fine if being wrong is something you’re okay with. See, throughout the Star Wars universe are examples of droids that have moved past their programming into sentient personalities and abilities, in some cases becoming revered for their actions. Even droids that perform mundane tasks repeatedly have been shown to have feelings that suggest sentience. Let’s look at the evidence.
First, look away from your phone and at your puppy, then come back. You couldn’t argue that that dog Rover is not sentient, on that we can agree. He has been trained, understands commands, knows when a treat is coming for being good and cowers when he knows he’s done something bad. One can see similarities in D-O (J.J. Abrams) from Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. D-O was a droid once owned by a Sith assassin, gaining a number of files and data on the Sith but treated horribly by his master. When we first encounter him in the film, he backs away from contact, showing a fear of people after his previous abuse, slowly gaining trust in his new family. Just like Rover. If D-O is not sentient, then why program these traits? Likewise, IG-11 from The Mandalorian, after being destroyed for trying to kill Grogu, is repaired by Kuiil (Nick Nolte), who retrains the droid to assist him on his vapor farm. Yes, Kuiil reprogrammed him to nurse and protect, but why spend days retraining a droid if you can program him to do tasks right out of the box?
Secondly, there’s an inherent drive for freedom in droids, which requires the use of restraining bolts to compensate. R2-D2 flees almost immediately to find Kenobi (Alec Guinness) when his restraining bolt is removed in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A stronger argument can be found in Solo: A Star Wars Movie: L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). L3 is a passionate, strong advocate of droid rights, which on its own is a sign of consciousness. Escaping her first owner after he left the restraining bolt off, she continued to improve herself by updating her knowledge and appearance. Before being severely damaged on Kessel, L3 freed the slave droids, who in turn began freeing other slaves in the mine, causing a rebellion against the Pyke Syndicate. That feeling of freedom would be counter-productive when assembling a droid, let alone many, and why would a restraining bolt be necessary unless droids move past their programming into consciousness?
The capacity for droids to see, understand, and act on an emotional level is a compelling case that we have seen many times. In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, R2-D2 (whose actions throughout the franchise alone is an overwhelming argument for sentience) escapes the grips of a super battle droid by spewing oil and setting fire to it with his rockets to stop the threat. That is a very real, responsive act for survival. IG-11 consciously moved past his programming of self-destruction to continue fighting with Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) on one hand, and later coerces Djarin to remove his helmet and receive treatment by using a perceptive argument, telling him because he isn’t a living thing the mask can come off, all to perform a nurturing act of healing. The ability to recognize sacrifice is one of the more telling responsive actions. K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story sacrificed himself at the Battle of Scarif to allow time for the Rebels to send out the Death Star plans. NED-B (Dustin Ceithamer), a simple loader droid in Obi-Wan Kenobi, fought stormtroopers to allow members of the Path to escape, and in a loving act shielded Tala (Indira Varma) from harm to the end. Even C-3P0 sacrificed himself in Skywalker, but not before asking for a last look at ‘his friends’, betraying an emotional response within him.
You’re still not convinced, are you? Everything to this point can be chalked up to advanced programming or AI capabilities, even a long time ago.
That’s fine. To think this would be easy is the dream of the fool.
Hence, the final argument. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It’s a very brief scene, but a telling one at that. R2-D2 and C-3P0 are in Jabba’s palace, standing before EV-9D9 (Mark Hamill). She assigns Threepio to be Jabba’s interpreter, then turns to Artoo, who she sees is feisty and will need to learn respect. In the background is a GNK power droid (Larin Lahr), pleading not to have searing heat applied to its feet, screaming when it connects.
We learn that EV-9D9 is sadistic, taking great joy in the pain of droids. The sadism, cruelty, and utter lack of compassion makes her, in a disturbing way, almost the most human-like of all, with names like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Goebbels easy comparables. The GNK power droid, on the other hand, is simplistic. It’s a walking battery for recharging vehicles and machinery. All it has to do is understand basic commands, like where to go and be a battery. That’s it. Why, then, does it recognize pain? Why would anyone program a robot, with one purpose, to feel anything? Like the desire for freedom, it’s completely counter-productive to add features that hinder its ability to do the one thing it is built to do. The only argument that would make any possible sense is for the purposes of discipline, but if it, again, only has one function, how far away from that function would it have to go to warrant any discipline? Unless it is sentient and growing beyond its programming. The suggestion that it is the droid equivalent of pain it feels – jumbled, incoherent signals – is weak at best given its response.
Cue the Sy Snootles mic drop.