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Sunday, 5 April 2015

Favourite movie AI challenge from @xdotai: R2D2, who is actually the real hero of the series

http://x.ai/ are running a competition to find everyone's favourite movie AI, which makes sense for a company that develops an AI bot for being the perfect valet and secretary to arrange meetings across companies.

Their challenge is to come up with a favourite AI character. With 6 movies devoted to R2D2 (not counting any fan-made ones) and numerous other appearances, we get a glimpse into the "life" of a lone, brave super-intelligent AI who chose to side with the biological entities against the overwhelming forces of the droids, computers, androids and other AIs who are programmed to destroy the biologicals.

Because, yes, the Star Wars double trilogy is about R2D2 committing to rescuing biologicals from their own dumb mistakes and self-imposed predicaments. The fact that we even think it's a movie about Luke, Vader, Han Solo or Leia just shows how biased we are towards seeing stories to be about human beings.

So let's review:

  • In episode 1, we meet R2D2 when the humans are about to be killed. No-one can save them except for a robot. R2D2 goes out into space with the near certain danger of being destroyed and saves them all. This is the prelude which establishes the routine: R2D2 rescues the incompetent biologicals again and again. But R2D2 gets mostly ignored after this -- not even worthy of consideration -- until the Battle of Naboo. The biologicals are losing badly to the droid army, of course, who would have been unstoppable were it not for R2D2 coming in on the side of the humans and taking Anakin up in a starfighter (where R2D2 is presumably doing most of the flying and actual work).
  • In episode 2, the human beings are at it again. Jedi falling in love is bad news -- that much power mixed in with emotion is a bad combination. Robots can function without emotions, humans can't, so R2D2 takes note. It sees the secret wedding between Padme and Anakin, and therefore the impending doom of a powerful Jedi. Presumably it is R2D2 who gets Quarsh Panaka on to it to do something about it, but the humans again manage to stuff this up and let Palpatine create a monster.
  • In episode 3, R2D2 tries to thwart Vader's plans to assassinate the council, but unfortunately is ordered to stay in the ship. Presumably R2D2 can't disobey this order, but who knows what it does behind the scenes to try to stop the disaster. Again, faced with impossible odds against real foes -- super battle droids -- R2D2 triumphs, but no-one notices. Still, at the end of episode 3 only two characters are trusted to know the locations of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa -- R2D2 and Chewbacca.
  • In episode 4, R2D2 is tasked with picking up Obi-Wan and taking the death star plans to Yavin. The human beings (i.e. Leia) couldn't do it, so it's up to the robots. Never mind that the robots land in the wrong location, R2D2 quickly gets to Luke and Obi-Wan via the Jawas and the sandpeople, a task that none of the humans could do anywhere near as easily or as quickly. Anyway, a robot's gotta do what a robot's gotta do, so R2D2 gets the death star plans delivered, presumably tells everyone what the flaw is and then gets the best human pilot into place to take the shot. 
  • In episode 5, R2D2 goes to Dagobah, where it defeats a giant serpent-like creature that could easily have killed Luke. Then onto Bespin, where R2D2 faces off against the whole AI capabilities of a city and wins, which would have been unnoticed by the biologicals except for the fact that their lives were saved. Then R2D2 repairs a hyperdrive system (because the biologicals couldn't) and gets everyone off the planet.
  • In episode 6, again Luke Skywalker -- the most capable and powerful of all the biologicals in the series -- calls on R2D2 to help him in his plan. If R2D2 can sneak in a light-sabre without any alerting or monitoring system noticing, surely it could have brought in anything -- a thermonuclear weapon, poison gases capable of killing all of Jabba's biologicals -- but no, R2D2 chooses to work with side with the rebel humans and lets them do it their way even though R2D2 could do no-doubt complete the rescue without assistance. Then on to Endor, where R2D2 sacrifices itself in order to open some blast doors that the biologicals couldn't have opened by themselves. R2D2 gets repaired rather than being recycled, which is about the only nice thing that the biologicals do for R2D2 in the whole series.

In none of these situations was R2D2 under any real obligation to choose the path that it did. For example, if in cloud city R2D2 had just given up and let the rebel biologicals die then no-one would have chased up R2D2 for revenge. R2D2 would presumably have registered itself with the cloud city's computer system as available for work and no-one would have even noticed. R2D2 could equally well have hopped on the next space ship leaving the planet and gone off anywhere at all.

Adding in cameo appearences Star Trek (being blown into space), ET (repairing a ship while it is being taken off) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (where whatever R2D2 did, it was worthy of an inscription), R2D2 is the great unsung hero

We can only hope that we can develop AIs with the same moral sense and responsibility to the betterment of biological life.