Blade Runner: Can an AI develop emotions?

The classification of robots with artificial intelligence is a concept that many movies in the late 20th century have tackled. Movies such as I, Robot; Bicentennial Man, the aptly named A.I: Artificial Intelligence all had one question in common – do artificial intelligences have the capacity to have emotions? Blade Runner is a 1983 film starring Harrison Ford. The movie is set in the future, where the powerful Tyrell Corporation looms over a very dark Los Angeles in 2019. Tyrell Corporation is famous for building humanoid-like robots called Replicants. Six replicants from a off-planet colony have escaped. They want life extensions, since Replicants expire after 4 years to prevent them from developing emotions. Replicants with emotions can pose a potential risk to human survival, if they strive for freedom from human control. Ford’s character, Deckard, is part of a group called blade runners – the hunters of rogue replicants. It is their job to find these rogue Replicants and stop them at their tracks.

Mary Litch (2004) discusses the philosophical implications of artificial intelligences like the one presented in Blade Runner, identifying a particular field called philosophy of mind. Litch (2004, p.99) poses two main questions – can computers and other artificially created organisms have what we consider ‘minds’? If not, what features of ‘mindedness’ do artificial intelligences lack? In Blade Runner, it has been explained that replicants do indeed have the capacity to develop emotions but because they were not programmed to handle emotions they become unstable. Humans treat replicants as slaves in the movie, and thus are not given the same emotional considerations that humans would get (Falzon, 2007, p. 94). In the film, this is considered to impetus to a Replicant rebellion if they develop emotions striving to become free. The main antagonist, Roy Batty – a Replicant himself, has developed a large sense of emotions. Batty throughout the movie expressed emotions of love, hate, and empathy (Falzon, 2007, p. 94). Ridley Scott, Blade Runner’s director, essentially has ‘personalised’ the Replicants, and puts forward the argument that artificial intelligences can be capable of having feelings like humans (Falzon, 2007, p. 94). In response to Litch’s (2004, p. 99) questions, Blade Runner puts forward that idea that artificial intelligence lack a mechanism to deal with newly-developed emotions. They were built to be apathetic.

One common argument that philosophers, like Rene Descartes, argued that separated humans from artificial intelligences was that if one was to have a mind, they assumed one had a soul as well (Litch, 2004, p. 100). However, Litch (2004, p. 100) points out such an argument can be flawed. If Descartes’ theory holds up, then animals would be classified as ‘mere machines’ in which they are incapable of making rational decisions – and hence, are incapable of feeling emotions (Litch, 2004, p. 101). How would Descartes explain the Replicants’ train of thought in Blade Runner? The six replicants clearly showed a capability of rational thought despite their manmade structure.

In conclusion, many movies seem to agree that artificial intelligences can develop emotions (A.I. is a notable one), and Blade Runner presented a view which leads to a dystopic conclusion.

Falzon, C. (2007). All Of Me – The Self and Personal Identity. In Philosophy Goes To The Movies. (pp.55 – 97). New York: Routledge.

Litch, M. (2004). Artificial Intelligence. In Philosophy Through Film (pp. 92 – 117). New Jersey: Routledge.

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