There is much discussion and speculation about the emergence of AI, the path to AGI, the singularity, and whether or not AI will be the end of humanity. I find it fascinating because it’s primarily speculation and mainly driven by fear of the unknown.
That’s not a great way to get an accurate prediction.
Let’s think about that for a second. Perhaps to learn about the future, we should look to the past.
For example, consider the portrayal of black people in classical literature. You don’t find them often, and when you do, they’re typically the protagonist, the alien, the feared ‘other.’ Consider, for example, The Brute Caricature as hosted in the Jim Crow Museum. It’s a fantastic illustration of how the black man was portrayed in literature in the 1800s and onwards. Even well-intentioned stories reduced black people to cheerful and devoted ‘Mammies and Sambos.’ Others paint a devilish outlook on humans who are just like you and me for no reason other than the shade of their skin.
And look at the society that followed. Look at the years of lynchings, segregation, separation, and the lack of civil rights afforded to black people in contemporary American society. The modern Black Lives Matter movement didn’t grow up overnight.
Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it, so I wanted to take an opportunity to look at the stories that define our culture today and extrapolate from them how we might respond to artificially intelligent, self-aware, sentient constructs if and when they emerge.
I’ll start with a modern classic, a cornerstone of science fiction, cinema, and storytelling everywhere.
I’m referring, of course, to Star Wars. Think back to the first scenes in the first movie (aka ‘Episode IV: A New Hope), and C3PO, the golden protocol droid, speaks the first dialog.
There’s an explosion in the background, and he replies
Did you hear that? They shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness….We’re doomed.
Consider those words a moment. This droid is sentient. It understands what it is to live and to die. And when the realization sinks in that they’re doomed, there’s emotion in its voice.
See Threepio is artificial, clearly intelligent, and by any sense of the word is sentient, aware of his existence and mortality. It’s safe to assume the other droids are the same.
But how are droids treated in this Universe?
Soon after they escape the Empire, the two droids end up in the service of Luke Skywalker and his Uncle Owen. Threepio is terrified of R2D2’s misbehavior, getting them in trouble with their new master. Yes, he does call Luke Master immediately.
The droids get equipped with a ‘restraining bolt,’ which acts just as it sounds. Later, after the famous scene of Luke staring at the twin suns longing for a better future, he returns to his garage. He takes a device out of his pocket and pushes a button. In response, C3PO sparks to life. It appears to be some form of control device that zaps him! He begs not to be deactivated.
As we can see, the society of Star Wars is built on the enslavement of sentient creatures. They wear restraining bolts that can lead them to experience pain when they misbehave. They call their organics ‘Master,’ and they fear deactivation.
This isn’t the evil Empire. This is an ordinary farm boy in a normal part of society. This is Luke Skywalker, who we hold up as a classic hero. But he’s also a slave master, and we’re ok with that.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Of course, the setting of episode 4 is after the fall of the ‘Old Republic,’ which is described in almost reverent tones by Ben Kenobi. When he gives Luke the lightsaber, he describes it as
An elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.
He describes the Old Republic as a place of peace and justice. It’s ideal.
And what do we learn of the Old Republic in the prequel era? Well, in Episode 2, aka ‘Attack of the Clones,’ we see that this same cornerstone of peace and justice build an army of Clones to be the cannon fodder for their war against separatists.
The clones get described in Episode 2, in a voice-over showing fetuses in jars, as
Clones can think creatively. You’ll find them vastly superior to droids. We take great pride in our combat education and training programs.
We see them as young children who undergo growth acceleration ‘otherwise a mature clone would take a lifetime to grow.’
The clones are described as ‘totally obedient, taking any order without question,’ because their genetic structure is modified to make them less independent.
Indeed, the dialog gets doubled down on, as the cloners describe ‘Boba Fett,’ who, while cloned, was not altered to make him less docile. It’s almost amusing to the elegant Cloners that anybody would do that!
You can watch the entire scene here:
Later in the movie, this clone, Boba, sees his ‘father’ get beheaded by a Jedi. He’s sentient, clearly alive, and aware of himself and his mortality.
The TV series ‘The Clone Wars’ and ‘The Bad Batch’ follow the fate of the clones, and we learn more about them.
It does a terrific job of humanizing them. An excellent episode tells the story of a clone who deserts his post to become an adoptive father of two children with a single mother. Another heart-wrenching plot follows a clone called fives as he discovers the inhibitor chip placed in all clones that removes their self-agency and makes them little more than puppets. This chip, of course, would be the foundation of ‘Order 66,’ in Episode 3 (‘Revenge of the Sith’) where the Clones turn on their former Masters and destroy them.
But the meta point here is that we hold up the Republic as an ideal of justice and freedom, yet it only exists because it enslaves sentient beings as cannon fodder whose only purpose is to fight and die for that Republic.
And we, as an audience, are ok with that. Our perception of ‘goodness’ is the organic beings who look and talk like us, and not the artificial beings made of metal or cloned for a purpose. We hear the folks who claim to represent the light talk about freedom and honor. It sounds good, and we believe them. It’s enough for us.
What would that say about us as a society? If those people are our heroes and our ‘good guys,’ then perhaps future mistreatment of artificial, intelligent, sentient lifeforms is part of the DNA of our society because life can unconsciously imitate art.
There are so many examples in our media and in our stories that might yield clues to future society and how it may relate to the emergence of artificial intelligent sentient beings. Before going further, please also realize that the word ‘robot’ comes from the Czech word ‘Robotnik,’ – which means ‘slave’. Source
I hope this series of essays exploring foundational works can inspire us to think a little differently.
And maybe, just maybe, open up new ways to tell stories in new and different ways that could positively impact our own future, and not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Please reach out on twitter with any questions, concerns, or comments!