Thursday, June 20, 2013

Robots and rights

Interesting piece on Slate about robots and souls and the Star Wars universe:
George Lucas doesn’t care about metal people. No other explanation makes sense. In a kid-targeted sci-fi setting that’s notably inclusive, with as many friendly alien characters as villainous ones, the human rights situation for robots is horrifying. They’re imbued with distinctly human traits—including fear—only to be tortured and killed for our amusement. They scream while being branded, and cower before heroes during executions.
The grand authority on robots and ethics is of course Isaac Asimov, who is mentioned in the article, but only in passing. Most apropos is "The Robots of Dawn," Asimov's somewhat boring 1983 novel about the murder of a robot. I just read it. Gotta say, his musings on robot sex are more interesting than the stuff about roboticide.

Then there is "The Measure of the Man," probably the best episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It's about exactly the issue raised in the Slate article. Do robots have rights? Great stuff.

We'll have to face this one day. Meanwhile, be good to your Roomba.


jw said...

That's an interesting piece. I've thought about the same thing, and just kind of imagined it away by telling myself that the droids really don't have feelings and are just mimicking human behaviors; their discomfort or seeming pain are simply an unavoidable function of an interface that lets us engage with them on a more pleasant level.

But that's harder to square with R2. (He's my favorite too, so I find myself in the unusual position of having to give George Lucas credit for his good taste.) A good author could probably write a quietly powerful, noncanonical short story about how he marks the first instance of a droid displaying what we would call a soul.

(I love that the captcha instructions on these comments are: "Please prove you're not a robot.")

Kenneth Burns said...

Following upon this discussion, I watched "The Measure of the Man" last night. Man, what a great episode. And it doesn't even have Beverly Crusher. It has that other doctor lady.