In my opinion, based on the evidence we are given:
- Are droids sentient? Yes.
- Are droids sapient? Also, yes.
- Are droids conscious/self-aware? Again, I say yes.
ARE DROIDS SENTIENT?
To the specific question asked, "are droids sentient", according to the definition from Oxford Dictionaries, the answer is undoubtedly, "yes".
able to see or feel things through the senses
Here are some "examples" of a droid's basic sentience:
- Sight: Droids have photoreceptors that are capable of perceiving and processing visual stimuli from their environment, which they use for navigation, decision making, and various other tasks.
- Hearing: Droids also have receptors for processing audio input/commands from their "organic overlords".
- Touch: Some (most?) droids clearly have some sort of tactile sense that prevents them from accidentally crushing something they may be attempting to grasp, as well as, I would deduce, identify when there is some sort of physical obstacle preventing them from proceeding (amongst other behaviors).
- Smell: Some droids, at least, have olfactory receptors in order to analyze the chemical composition of the air around them.
- Taste: While there's not much information available for droids with taste receptors in the current canon, the SE4 Series Protocol Droid (SE4 servant droid) from various mentions in Legends was fitted with a taste bud on the lining of the left index finger.
Okay, so the last two are, admittedly, a bit of a stretch but, even without them, we see that droids are clearly "able to see or feel things through (albeit, artificially created) senses". This simple definition does not imply any inherent "understanding" of their surroundings or any deeper awareness of what those senses "mean" beyond base-level, instinctual (organic), or pre-programmed (artificial) responses to the appropriate stimuli.
In short, sentience is strictly the ability to perceive ones' surroundings. Any living thing that has some degree of consciousness is sentient, including insects, lizards, dogs, dolphins, and human beings. Using this definition, droids are clearly at least sentient.
ARE DROIDS SAPIENT?
In my opinion, the next logical question in this line of thought is, "are droids sapient?" The Oxford Dictionaries are a little less "on the nose" with this one:
having great intelligence or knowledge
The Cambridge Dictionary gets a little closer:
- intelligent; able to think
Additionally, as most dictionaries do, it also lists a definition of "relating to the human species Homo sapiens", but we're talking about droids here and, since this ("alternate") definition would immediately and completely nullify the discussion, we'll put that one aside for our purposes here.
A more complete definition of sapient can be found in the article, Sentience vs. Sapience on Grammarist. In this definition (emphasis mine):
Sapience means the ability to think, the capacity for intelligence, the ability to acquire wisdom.
This goes far beyond the sentient ability to simply perceive their surroundings. This means that they can interact with that environment in "meaningful" ways. They may, in some cases, even be able to manipulate their circumstances through the use of intelligent analysis of the stimuli they receive.
So, are droids capable of "thinking"? Well, according to Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode II: Attack of the Clones:
If droids could think, there'd be none of us here.
But, I don't think that gives us the whole picture. All of the evidence we have available from the films, television shows, comics, video games, and novels that are available seem to indicate that droids are capable of, at the very least, some basic decision-making. Droids are built with a low-level AI (artificial intelligence) that drives their fundamental "personalities" and gives them "quirks" - C-3PO is a bit of a prim-and-proper "dandy", while R2-D2 is more of a street-smart "rascal". However, they both make "decisions" from our first encounters with them in Episode IV: A New Hope. One specific example of such autonomous decision-making is after Leia gives R2 the Death Star plans and records her message for Obi-Wan, R2 dutifully enters the escape pod to jettison himself down to Tatooine.
You might be saying, "But, that's just a programmed response to an order from the droid's master!"
Perhaps, but consider C-3PO's actions in response to those of R2's. 3PO finds R2 just as Leia has finished her recording and disappears back into the shadows of the Tantive IV. 3PO has no direct interaction with Leia and receives no direct orders from anyone else to follow the little blue-and-white astromech (at least, none to which we are witness). So, why does 3PO continue to follow the smaller droid? Why does "goldenrod" try to stop R2 from getting into the escape pod ("You'll be deactivated, for sure!")? Why does the protocol droid eventually join the domed little droid in that escape pod and go down to Tatooine?
I submit that these are "decisions" made based on analyzing the stimuli of the environment. Perhaps they're based on pre-programmed imperatives (instincts) for self-preservation, but there must be some form of "intellectual" process that prompts 3PO into taking some sort of action. This, in my opinion, satisfies the "ability to think" element of the definition.
However, both the "capacity for intelligence" and "ability to acquire wisdom" are, perhaps, a bit more difficult to quantify here. Even so, we know that our favorite droid linguist is now fluent in over 7 million forms of communication, but does that make 3PO "intelligent"?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary (emphasis mine):
showing intelligence, or able to learn and understand things easily
When we first met C-3PO, the droid was only fluent in 6 million forms of communication. However, after years in service to and with the Rebellion/Resistance, 3PO has increased his fluency by approximately 1 million additional forms of communication. According to a ScreenRant article about the protocol droid titled "Star Wars: How Many Languages C-3PO Can Speak (& 9 Other Facts About The Character You Didn't Know)":
By the time of what is known in-universe as the Cold War (the state of tension in the government as the First Order rose), Threepio's Tranglang III communication module got upgraded... When it was updated, Threepio went from six million-plus forms of communication to seven million-plus forms of communication...
Since the resulting increase in linguistic proficiency was apparently "just" a hardware upgrade, perhaps this doesn't really meet the criteria for "able to learn" - I bring it up here mainly to address the point for reference - but there's another situation I'd argue does. I'm thinking specifically of the time 3PO spent as the interpreter droid for Jabba the Hutt in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
The most simplistic example would be 3PO's "recognition" that Jabba had a trap door installed in the floor in front of his throne. When Luke arrives to confront the Hutt gangster, the droid tries to warn the Jedi but is cut off before getting the words out.
For a more complex yet, arguably, less direct example, 3PO had to "learn" how to behave in Jabba's palace in order to avoid being disintegrated like the previous interpreter droid. In fact, after apparently angering the crime lord when translating the bounty hunter Boushh's demand for fifty thousand credits for Chewbacca, the droid asks, "what did I say?" Such a question carries with it the implication of an intention to learn so as to prevent making the same mistake again.
For a much better example of a droid's ability to learn, I'd actually have to refer to another droid: IG-11 from The Mandalorian. After Kuiil reconstructed the bounty hunter/assassin droid, the Ugnaught reprogrammed it to function as a nurse droid instead of a killer. However, it still had to re-learn how to do pretty much everything, from walking to how to pick up a cup without crushing it. The lanky droid even learned to "shoo" away the small creatures skittering around the camp before putting down a heavy box to avoid squishing them.
While 3PO doesn't always seem to learn - especially when to "shut up" - does the droid exhibit wisdom?
Again, from the Cambridge Dictionary:
the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgments
Does 3PO exhibit these characteristics? Well, this is where things can get really tricky as they rely on the observer's subjective perception of what constitutes a "good" decision or judgment. Is it one that benefits the decision-maker? Is it one that is in line with some sort of "moral" code (or pre-defined/pre-programmed set of "rules")? There are virtually infinite ways to define "good" in this context, but I'll limit it to the most basic and primitive imperative of self-preservation for this discussion.
In this context, I would argue that C-3PO is capable of making good decisions, but doesn't always do so. For example, the droid is clearly exhibits "good judgment" by trying to avoid going into Jabba's Palace in the opening scenes of Return of the Jedi Even so, the droid duo still ends up going in anyway (perhaps just poor execution?).
Consider, however, R2-D2 (and the rest of D-Squad) when they were stranded on Abafar during their story arc in The Clone Wars. While their commanding officer, Colonel Meebur Gascon, was content to stay near their crashed ship, the astromech took the initiative to get moving and try to find the group some help. While an argument could be made for both tactics, the fact that the party was in the middle of a barren wasteland with no other landmarks or beings in sight seemingly made proactively seeking help a more appropriate course of action - the "wise" choice, even though his actions directly countermanded the orders of his commander.
ARE DROIDS CONSCIOUS/SELF-AWARE?
So, according to these definitions, I personally believe we can call droids both sentient and sapient. However, I still don't think that really gets at the true heart of the question. I think we need to go at least one more level and ask the question, "are droids conscious?"
Consciousness, in my opinion, is what L3-37 and the Droid Gotra are claiming in their fight for Droid Rights. While an even more nebulous concept than either intelligence or wisdom, the Cambridge Dictionary defines consciousness as:
the state of understanding and realizing something
This implies not only a basic awareness of an entity's surroundings (sentience), the ability to intelligently react to or even manipulate that environment (sapience), but also a higher-level capacity for understanding of circumstances and how that entity is tied to what is happening around them. Another way of saying this might be "self-awareness". And, to this, I'd have to say that droids meet this standard as well.
Consider, again, our constantly complaining C-3PO when taken to the droidsmith, Babu Frik and the Spice Runners of Kijimi to bypass the droid's programming and retrieve information from C-3PO's memory banks in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. More specifically, consider the protocol droid's reaction to the proposed procedure:
C-3PO: "If this mission fails... it was all for nothing. All we've done... all this time."
And then, just before going "under the knife", there's this rather emotional exchange (at least, it was for me):
Poe Dameron: "What are you doing there, 3PO?"
C-3PO: "Taking one last look Sir, at my friends."
This dialogue seems to indicate - to me, at least - that C-3PO is acutely aware of his own individuality and self. The beleaguered droid doesn't really want to undergo (yet another) memory wipe but recognizes and understands that it's a necessary sacrifice - and, even more specifically, a sacrifice that cannot be made by anyone else - if the Resistance has any hope of triumphing over the Final Order and
So, in conclusion, based on all of the evidence we have available, it seems to me that droids in Star Wars™ are clearly not only sentient but sapient and conscious, as well. While I don't condone the Droid Gotra's tactics, I must admit that they have a valid point.
For additional reading/reference, there was a thread in
r/philosophy on Reddit several years ago that discusses the comparison of these three concepts - Consciousness vs Sentience vs Sapience. While the thread itself isn't particularly illuminating, there is a link to a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the nature of consciousness that's rather interesting.