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Related to What did Rey tell Teedo that caused him to release BB-8? - Rey approaches Teedo and intimidated him as if he captured a sentient being. Are all droids afforded a status that gives them rights even when lost or away from their masters/owners?

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BB-8 is indeed sentient. All droids are. – Evil Angel Jan 9 at 13:50
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All of the heros in Star Wars treat Droids as sentients. All the baddies seem to treat them largely as objects – Valorum Jan 9 at 13:51
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Because he is... – Wad Cheber Jan 9 at 16:01
    
There are two good answers, but neither actually answer the question of whether Star Wars droids are truly sentient / have strong AI. Should that be a separate question? – Lilienthal Jan 10 at 0:09
    
Because she's different; she's the Hermione of Star Wars. – Mooz Jan 25 at 1:14
up vote 32 down vote accepted

TL;DR: Because he is sentient.

I will be using some quotes from the novelization of The Force Awakens, which describe BB-8 and his behavior, to support my case (because I happen to have it handy at the moment).

BB-8's dialogue (i.e., beeping) as a reflection of his emotions and sentience:

BB-8's beeps are variously described as:

  • "Agitated" when he spots the First Order ships approaching the village on Jakku

  • "Anxious" when Poe tells him to run away - he only does so, in the end, because:

Much to BB-8’ s regret, it could only protest a direct order, not reject it.

  • After Rey frees him from the Teedo, he faces the Teedo and beeps "loudly and challengingly" in its direction until Rey tells him to shut up

  • "Distinctly anxious" when Rey tells him to go away, after freeing him from the Teedo

  • "Laced with unmistakable desperation" when she repeats her request for him to leave

  • "Plaintive and anxious" when she tries to ditch him in town

  • When Plutt starts asking questions about him, BB-8 begins to "beep apprehensively"; when Rey shows interest in selling him, he starts "beeping furiously", because he had been paying attention to the conversation and "was not liking the turn it had taken, not at all".

  • Plutt scolds and demeans Rey, she stands up for herself, and BB-8 offers "a beep of admiration"

  • As they walk away from Plutt, BB-8 beeps "excitedly"


BB-8's behavior and thoughts as a reflection of his emotions and sentience:

His reactions to different situations are similarly varied, and highly suggestive of an advanced level of consciousness:

Even to a droid, Niima outpost was unimpressive... Nothing the droid saw was encouraging.

We even get a glimpse of how he feels about humans and other organic beings:

[Eating was a] biological process he understood from an objective point of view but for which he could never rouse much empathy.

And at one point he seeks out his own kind; he is well aware that he was a droid, and not a human:

Droids such as him were not meant for unpopulated places, and he desperately desired to find others like himself. Or, failing that, even people.

He himself is described as:

  • "Very, very concerned" when he sees the First Order ships approaching the village on Jakku

  • "In something approaching cybernetic panic" when he is rushing back to warn Poe; along the way, he encounters a flock of birdlike "bloggins", and although they peck at him, he deliberately avoids hitting them, dodging the flock members with "skill and patience", despite the fact that he finds them "annoying"

  • "Frightened" (several times, including when the Teedo tries to catch him)

  • "Insubordinate" when the Teedo tries to catch him

  • "Obstreperous" when he protests the idea of Rey selling him to Plutt; she gets annoyed and shuts him down:

Immediately, [BB-8's head] slid sideways until it made contact with the ground. No further beeps issued from its speaker. Artificial consciousness was absent now, and it was just a quiescent piece of machinery, a spherical piece of junk.

  • When Rey is wandering through the Starkiller base, she comes across a utility droid, and freezes with terror, expecting to be caught. The droid ignores her and passes by, and she is grateful that "not all droids had the cerebral capacity of one like BB-8"

The scene with the Teedo:

The Teedo presumably didn't care about legal ownership of BB-8, and just wanted some money. Droids are generally treated as property in the galaxy far, far away, although the good guys treat them like sentient property. They may not have full rights, and I assume a droid's owner can do whatever he or she wants with it, but the heroes generally try to strike a balance between taking a droid's feelings into consideration while also making use of the droid.

Rey seemed to be acting out of compassion, perhaps because she herself is often treated badly; she also deemed the Teedo's behavior as "particularly impolite", and said he "wanted [BB-8] for parts". She may have assumed that BB-8 was on an errand for his owner, and that the Teedo was breaking some sort of unspoken code of scavenging.

She didn't like it - him. Her fondness for most machinery extended to its trade equivalent in food. But she found herself feeling sorry for this small, helpless droid. At least, she told herself, this one seemed harmless enough.

I assume that, had the Teedo stolen BB-8 and scrapped him for parts, he would be guilty of theft, destruction of property, etc, but not murder.


Conclusion:

As should be clear by now, BB-8 is definitely self aware, and possesses sentience/consciousness, albeit "artificial consciousness". He fears for his well-being and the well-being of his friends, he gets annoyed, he is insubordinate, he gets frustrated, he experiences sadness, loyalty, comradeship, happiness, and doubt.

He doesn't feel these emotions and impulses in a vacuum, of course - he acts in accordance to them, and makes decisions based on them. For example, when he sees Finn wearing a jacket that belongs to his master Poe, he alerts Rey to the apparent theft (despite the fact that Rey has no real reason to care, from a perspective of pure self-interest), and after she knocks Finn down, BB-8 makes it abundantly clear that he is enraged by Finn's apparent thievery, and repeatedly shocks him with a Taser. When Finn explains that he came to Jakku with Poe, but believed the latter to be dead, BB-8 reacts appropriately, immediately foregoing his rage and sinking into grief and despair.

He is more limited in his actions than we are: He apparently can't reject a direct order, no matter how much he wants to do so, but can only protest it. His programming inhibits him in less direct ways as well - at one point, he follows Rey, staying "as close to her as protocol allowed". This suggests that he is programmed with a complex set of guidelines, presumably designed to accommodate basic etiquette, including, perhaps, some respect for "personal space".

More to the point of the question - which focuses on sentience - he knows he is a droid, and wants to be among his own kind, but sees humans as an acceptable substitute - even if he can't "rouse much empathy" for the human need to eat, despite understanding it in an objective sense.

Regardless of the mechanical and artificial source of his sentience, he clearly possesses a wide range of emotions, fears, hopes, desires, and opinions, and these are quite similar to their analogues in humans and other intelligent species. This isn't mere parroting of what he sees, it is intuitive, natural, and authentic. He doesn't just appear to be a thinking, feeling, self-aware entity; he truly does think, feel, and possess a robust awareness of himself.

Although BB-8 would presumably have to obey Poe even if he didn't like him, this clearly isn't the case - BB-8 is not only obedient, but loyal and affectionate. He obviously cares for Poe, and later, Rey and Finn, quite deeply. I don't see any evidence that his affection for his organic companions is substantially different from their affection for one another. And although I haven't touched on it elsewhere in this answer, it is self-evident, in my opinion, that the same is true of R2-D2. The most prominent droids in Star Wars are quite plainly sentient, emotional beings who love their companions and display a full range of emotions throughout the series.

Thus, many droids, including BB-8, obviously do possess sentience, self-awareness, emotions, and personalities, and although some aspects of their behavior are regulated by programming and fairly rigid protocol, these limitations and prohibitions seem to be a very minor part of the overall picture. The vast majority of a droid's actions are motivated by internal decision making processes, emotions, and values, in a manner that appears to be almost indistinguishable from our own decision making processes, emotions, and values.

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I've been progressively sadder as time goes on that no one ever wants to free the droids. If Star Wars was a Western, droids would be the slaves, but no one in the galaxy seems to mind this. They just keep on buying and selling sentient beings, and occasionally wiping their memories for pretty much no reason. – DaaaahWhoosh Jan 9 at 18:14
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It's a bit more complicated than that, and most of the EU or movies don't really address the issue very well, but it is pretty clear that droids have an extremely variable degree of sentience, sometimes even between members of the same general model/class. It's also hinted at that beyond a certain degree of complexity, sentience is basically an emergent feature -- leave a droid running long enough without a wipe and restore, and it'll start developing sentience. And that leads into the question of "where do we define the treshold?", and that's arguably the least hairy ethical problem here... – Shadur Jan 9 at 19:00
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... Another problem: If droids are sentient and have all sentient rights including the potential for franchise, what happens if a droid factory owner builds three billion droids with a bit of code in their systems that'll make them vote for him in the next election? – Shadur Jan 9 at 19:02
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@Richard You could say the same thing about humans. – DaaaahWhoosh Jan 9 at 22:35
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@DaaaahWhoosh - Alas, memory-wiping rarely seems to work with humans who've developed annoying habits. – Valorum Jan 9 at 22:41

As someone who's quite literally on the bottom rung of society (doing work that's almost too low value to waste a droid on) Rey sees BB-8 as a kindred spirit.

But the small droid was putting up such a spirited defense that its capture seemed unjust. This unit wasn’t the average binary loadlifter or probot spy. Its yelps were frantic pleas for aid, and Rey had a feeling the droid would try to assist her if their positions were reversed and she were caught in the net.

To grab the Teedo’s attention, Rey shouted in his native language. Both captor and captive paused in their struggle and looked up at her. She continued shouting, ordering the Teedo to leave the droid alone. The reptilian Teedo hissed through his rusted mask. - Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Junior Novelisation

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Just to be picky, you can't "literally" be on the bottom ring of society, unless your society lives on a giant ladder. :) – user3573647 Jan 9 at 19:30
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@user3573647 - It may amuse you to learn that "literally" doesn't mean what you think it means. – Valorum Jan 9 at 19:33
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Your link just goes to the Google homepage for my browser, but if you're referring to the fact that dictionaries have given up & define literally as literally or figuratively, it's exact opposite. I guess you've got me, I can't overrule Webster's! :) However when a word means one thing and also the opposite, one might claim that the word has become completely meaningless. If "correct"started to mean "correct" or "incorrect" interchangeably, I think people would abandon it. I like have words to express the idea of "actually-for real" vs "metaphorically". But I'm a nerd like that. – user3573647 Jan 9 at 20:50
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Try this link instead. Unfortunately (for you), words mean what people use them to mean, not what's written in dictionaries. When the meaning changes, the nice people at the dictionary publishers change the meaning in the book. You may also want to shield your eyes when looking at the word "irony‌​" which ironically doesn't mean what you think it means. – Valorum Jan 9 at 20:54
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It's not really unfortunate for me personally if words lose any meaning, I think it's unfortunate for any who use that language, since conveying meaning is the point of language. And yeah, irony has definitely been drastically misused for a while, though not as it's direct opposite so it only gained an alternate meaning as a form of "sarcastic" instead of being meaningless. But I don't blame Alanis Morissette like so many do. :) – user3573647 Jan 10 at 3:00

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