Once you start really thinking about it, the Star Wars universe is a pretty grim place. Not only is the entire galaxy always seemingly mired in a destructive, pervasive war, but there’s dramatic levels of income inequality, extreme poverty, and, perhaps worst of all, widespread slavery of sentient beings. Even with this rich background of suffering and general shittiness, there’s one fact about the universe that is uniquely and disturbingly cruel. This quality is probably best demonstrated in a clip from The Return of the Jedi:

Here’s the clip I’m talking about:

Yes, the droid torture scene from Jabba the Hutt’s palace. There’s a lot here that can be considered cruel—torture, enslavement, sadism, and so on—but the really cruel thing isn’t directly happening in the scene, but it does make the scene possible.

It’s the fact that droids can feel pain.

Let me explain why this is by far more cruel than so much else in the Star Wars universe: other terrible things like the widespread enslavement of sentient beings (and droids, really) are done to further the economic gain and status of those in power. While what’s happening is reprehensible, it seems to be happening for a reason, even if that reason is the avarice of the ruling classes.

Pre-production drawing of droid-torturing rig
Graphic: Star Wars Identities Exhibition

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But the fact that droids can feel pain does not have a good, rational reason behind it. In fact, the opposite may be true—I’d argue the ability to feel pain actually impairs a droid from performing its jobs, and actually costs resources. It exists despite the fact that it benefits no one—it’s just there to cause pain to an artificial being that was specifically designed to hurt.

That’s astoundingly cruel.

Take the scene up there, in Jabba’s droid torture chamber. The droid being tortured with the hot brands against its feet is a GNK power droid, essentially a large, self-mobile battery used to provide power to remote locations.

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A GNK droid (also known as a Gonk, thanks to the distinctive sound it makes) has very limited artificial intelligence, and can respond only to limited commands. You can see one here, from the original Star Wars from 1977:

They’re not smart. They don’t have to be smart. They just need to be able to find who needs power, go to them, and provide power. That’s it.

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Let’s think about when the GNK droid was being designed. Imagine that they were going through all the design specs, figuring out how large an energy storage system they could cram inside that casing, how complicated they needed to make those legs so it could traverse complex terrain, how advanced they needed to make the vision system, and so on.

Now imagine that one of the engineers was looking at the GNK droid plans and said “Hey, you know what would be a good idea? What if we integrated into these very simple and rugged foot units a complex series of pressure and temperature-sensitive sensors that, when they get readings beyond a certain threshold, put the entire droid’s central processing system into paroxysms of pain and agony? Doesn’t that seem useful for a walking battery? Then the droid could, you know, scream and feel pain when walking over gravel or very hot tarmac or something? What’ya think?”

In any logical universe, that engineer would have been fired on the spot, because that is the stupidest fucking idea imaginable.

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Why would anyone go through the considerable effort and cost to engineer a whole environmental sensing system into those feet just so that the robot can feel agony?

Sure, a robot should be able to tell when a particular component has been damaged, but it doesn’t have to hurt. Hell, those feet aren’t even articulated or anything—they could be solid slabs of dumb tempered steel and work just fine. If they had no pain sensors, Gonk droids could stomp through broken glass or red-hot coals or needle-grass or whatever is in between them and their power-needing goal. That seems like a much better solution, and much cheaper.

So why the hell would it need to be engineered to feel pain? The fact that it does feel pain means that someone at Industrial Automaton is disturbingly and terrifyingly cruel.

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The famous R2 series of droids are also built by this company, and we’ve seen evidence that they can feel pain as well. Remember the primal scream R2-D2 emits when he’s shot in the head by a TIE fighter? He seems to scream like that every time he gets badly hurt:

It sure sounds like he’s in pain. And we also see, throughout the series, C-3PO complaining about joint pain, or getting offended, or exhibiting debilitating fear. These are all forms of pain, and none of them really serve any purpose beyond raw, meaningless sadism.

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Some emotions would be useful for a droid to have: loyalty, determination, some curiosity, and so on. We’ve seen evidence of all of these in Star Wars droids, and we have plenty of reason to believe that droids have some sort of sentience.

This just makes the fact that they’re deliberately designed to feel pain even more cruel. Maybe you could argue that in a droid that has to work with living things a lot, like C-3PO, the ability to at least give the impression of vulnerability is an asset to help with interpersonal interactions.

But for something like the GNK droid? No. There’s no good reason. Even if you argue that droids can feel pain as a deterrent to any attempts at revolt, then you just find yourself faced with the question about why are they even built to be able to comprehend the concept of revolt or dissatisfaction or the desire for freedom at all?

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I can’t shake the image of the tortured Gonk droid out of my head, because what it implies is almost too horrible to imagine. It suggests that somewhere out there, unseen in any of the movies or books or shows or whatever, exists a being so malevolent, so cold and so cruel, that they make all of the Darth Whatevers and Dark Side acolytes and soulless Empire officers and flunkies and stormtroopers look like feckless guests at a cocktail party.

This cruel being, whomever or whatever it is, at some point decided that a walking battery machine with one simple job to do should be, at great technical cost, granted the ability to feel, really feel, just one thing with any intensity:

Pain. All-encompassing, agonizing, mind-eclipsing pain.

Pity the Gonk droids. Pity us all.