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Is the question of droid consciousness ever addressed in canon sources? Are they self aware or do they merely pass the turing test by seeming self aware?

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How could anyone ever tell the difference? – jwodder Feb 14 '13 at 22:19
    
Canon authors could. Star Wars lit has a lot of meta commentary, so figured it could have been mentioned. – zipquincy Feb 14 '13 at 22:26
    
Am I self aware or do I merely pass the Turing test by seeming self aware? There is no way to test it. – Plutor Feb 15 '13 at 1:12
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@Plutor - I know there is no way to test it in the real world -- fortunately we are talking about fiction though. Authors can "know" whether their character is just a mechanical puppet or a self-aware being, and may have mentioned it. – zipquincy Feb 15 '13 at 1:20
    
Are you asking about "are there examples of consciousness", or "are ALL droids conscious"? – DVK-in-exile Feb 20 '13 at 2:59
up vote 16 down vote accepted

If you do a Google Books search for phrases like "Threepio wondered" and "Artoo thought", you'll get hits that are clearly passages from EU novels written from the perspective of a droid. For example, there's this line from Dark Apprentice by Kevin Anderson:

See-Threepio thought that if his fine-motor control had allowed it, his entire golden body would be chattering with cold. His internal thermal units were no match for the frozen polar regions of Coruscant.

If droids are capable of being perspective characters, I'd say that's the most compelling evidence you could get that they're actually conscious.

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This is compelling evidence that Threepio is sentient. It does not, however, prove the case for all droids. We've also seen droids as perspective characters give simple, mechanical reports and make strictly observational comments. – Jeff Feb 20 '13 at 2:47
    
@Jeff well a random med-droid in TESB told Luke to "Take care, sir", as well as offering up small-talk such as "Sir, it will take quite awhile to evacuate the T-forty- sevens." A simple robot wouldn't seem to do that. It seems that there is evidence wherever you look that they are conscious. Sometimes the smarter ones know when to shut-up, just like us :) – John Davis Feb 20 '13 at 17:10
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@JohnDavis: Basic politeness is something I would always look to put into a typical medical AI - bedside manner is a huge part of a doctor's job. And for a droid which has been doing quartermaster duty, logistics are an essential function. Both of your examples are not, to me, compelling evidence of sentience. Compelling evidence of sentience would be the quartermaster making the choice himself, and justifying it after-the-fact to human officers. – Jeff Mar 1 '13 at 21:53

The Medstar Duology (Battle Surgeons and Jedi Healer, Clone Wars era) also addresses this issue. The droid I-5YQ comes to the planet and expresses great sadness, remorse, sarcastic capabilities, inquisition about the force and human behavior, and a desire to get drunk. The book compares this seemingly conscious droid with the clones, and the doctors in the Medstar Duology revise their point of view on what exactly can be considered alive. It seems that the consciousness of droids is a common theme throughout the Star Wars saga.

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This is an excerpt from the 'Star Wars - The Force Awakens' novel which is canon.

Either the droid didn’t understand or else he was willfully ignoring her instructions. Having little patience with obstreperous mechanisms, she reached over and thumbed a sequence on his head. Immediately, that portion of the droid 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.

So the droids do have consciousness on some level.

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Yes, without a doubt. 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 consciousness:

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 consciousness:

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.


Conclusion:

As should be clear by now, BB-8 is definitely self aware, and possesses 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 consciousness and self-awareness - 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 conscious, emotional beings who love their companions and display a full range of emotions throughout the series.

Thus, droids obviously do possess consciousness, 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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In Tales of the Bounty Hunters you have Ig 88 and counterparts perspectives, in one event attempting to deduce what actions Boba Fett will take to counter them in a starship combat.

In Knights of the Old Republic conversations with the artistically violent and whimsical HK-47, many of which imply sentience.


There are more examples, but I think we can reasonably conclude that some droids at least, are conscious.

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silly me, not acknowledging disney canon – Minativ7 Jan 6 at 2:46

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