Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or Harrison Ford?

2019. The perpetual night of Los Angeles. The smog billowing to blackness, the acid rain dribbling onto the rubbles homes, the blistering neon slicing through the oppressive darkness, projecting a Japanese woman over the city streets, smiling and holding out her electric arms to hand you a soda. Yet, within this disastrous scene of what filmmaker Ridley Scott envisioned for the not so distant future, there’s a virtual reality feel like we are watching a hyperbolic projection of the ugly and insidious aspects of our own culture. Blade Runner surpassed the world of geek culture, science fiction, and cult classics. The 1982 neo-noir is simply art and still stands today as a cultural icon for its philosophical and introspective approach to film.

Although Blade Runner hasn’t been a household name since its conception in 1982, popularity around the film has resurfaced recently, with sequel, Blade Runner: 2049 starring Ryan Gosling. Unfortunately, Hollywood has had a problem with creating original and innovative scripts and has been cheaply recycling old movies under the premise of rebooting the series and bringing it back to its original glory. Really, this is just an easy scam to make money off an old and successful franchise by calling it nostalgia. The disastrous Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which played out like a high school drama club’s rendition of A New Hope, is an example of how reanimating a series for no reason can often times just spit on the original creativity of a project. If a studio wants to bring a film back to life, it should be because they genuinely want to add to and enhance the story, not simply guilt old and new fans to paying fifteen dollars a pop to see a blockbuster they will ultimately be disappointed by. Blade Runner: 2049 added a new innovation to the franchise. The sequel respectfully nodded its head to the original cult films philosophy of technology while still showing off the modern innovation we have gained with special effects and storytelling through new advancements in film technology and greater understandings of the world around us.

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Part of what made Blade Runner such a smashing success in the 80s was its new perspective on the growing mass use of technology. The movie is loosely based on the 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick, who was haunted by the idea of what modernity and technology was doing to humanity. The novel and the film adaptation follow the plot of Rich Deckard, a troubled cop who is assigned with hunting down and “retiring” (murdering) human replica robots. When considering the rapid rise and development of technology, Dick often pondered the question, what is real and what is fake? This question sums up the basic ethical question between the lines of Blade Runner, asking us if these examples of artificial intelligence are considered people or not. It is easy to say that my computer does not deserve the same rights as me, but when my computer starts to looks like a person and can communicate with me, then issue becomes a little more strenuous. While philosophers like Immanuel Kant argue that to have agency, something must be rational, others such as Jeremy Bentham argue that to have agency one must be able to experience pleasure and pain. Agency is a complicated matter to define, especially when the growth of technology makes us wonder at what point artificial intelligence will start changing our standard definition of agency.  

In both the book and the movie, these “replicants” were designed by human corporations to be slave labor in distant planet colonies that humans utilize after leaving the Earth just a tattered rag from nuclear warfare. Six of these androids (eight in the book) murder their owners and come back to Earth to search for their creator, hoping he will be able to program a longer lifespan into them. What makes these robots different from other Hollywood tech villains (think Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey) is the fact that they have implanted memories to either make them feel as though they have agency or to make them really believe that they are humans and not robots. When given an ethics test to determine if an agent is a human or a robot, these androids often answer with genuine compassion and sympathy for each other and the people the enslave them, an image that juxtaposes with the slimy life of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, where people steal and kill each other to get ahead in life.

Even though Blade Runner has been around for 35 years, the ethical questions can still be applied to the contemporary world. As technology plays a bigger and bigger role in our lives, at what point does it become too powerful. As robots replace more and more jobs, including operating on the human body, at what point do they become too intelligent for us? As artificial intelligence sky rockets as a business, creating robots that are designed to look and think like people, at what point do they gain agency? How do we keep track of creating legislation to encompass the Internet as it expands further and further every day? What power does facial recognition and GPS tracking have over us?

At what point will we be unable to decide what is human and what is not?

Art by: Francisco Guglielmino