Friday, February 12, 2016

"All Life Depends on Carefully Balanced Murders"

By Robert Sheckley (1928-2005).
First appearance: Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1953.
First anthologized in Shadow of Tomorrow (1953).
First collected in Untouched by Human Hands (1955).
Reprinted in The Robert Sheckley Kindle Megapack (for sale HERE).
Filmed for Canadian TV in 2007 (HERE).
Novelette (~25 pages).
Online HERE and HERE (PDF).
"Strange how often the Millennium has been at hand. The idea is peace on Earth, see, and the way to do it is by figuring out angles."
There's an old saying about the cure being worse than the disease; despite the assurances of his head engineer "Mac" Macintyre, manufacturer Charlie Gelsen, even though he's working under government contract on the watchbird program, has his doubts:
A simple, reliable answer to one of mankind's greatest problems [mused Gelsen], all wrapped and packaged in a pound of incorruptible metal, crystal and plastics.
Perhaps that was the very reason he was doubting it now. Gelsen suspected that you don't solve human problems so easily. There had to be a catch somewhere.
After all, murder was an old problem, and watchbird too new a solution.
While everybody else involved with the project can see only the upside, Gelsen has reservations:
"First, let me say that I am one hundred per cent in favor of a machine to stop murder. It's been needed for a long time. I object only to the watchbird's learning circuits. They serve, in effect, to animate the machine and give it a pseudo-consciousness. I can't approve of that."
A police captain explains the watchbird system to his men; after all, the watchbirds will greatly impact their jobs:
"Well," the captain said, trying to remember what he had read in the Sunday supplements, "these scientists were working on criminology. They were studying murderers, to find out what made them tick. So they found that murderers throw out a different sort of brain wave from ordinary people. And their glands act funny, too. All this happens when they're about to commit a murder. So these scientists worked out a special machine to flash red or something when these brain waves turned on."
Despite the complexity of such a system, says the head engineer trying to reassure his boss, they're still only machines:
Then Macintyre grinned again. "I know. You're like a lot of people, Chief—afraid your machines are going to wake up and say, 'What are we doing here? Let's go out and rule the world.' Is that it?"
"Maybe something like that," Gelsen admitted.
"The watchbirds are no more dangerous than an automobile, an IBM calculator or a thermometer. They have no more consciousness or volition than those things. The watchbirds are built to respond to certain stimuli, and to carry out certain operations when they receive that stimuli."
"And the learning circuits?"
"You have to have those," Macintyre said patiently, as though explaining the whole thing to a ten-year-old. "The purpose of the watchbird is to frustrate all murder-attempts, right? Well, only certain murderers give out these stimuli. In order to stop all of them, the watchbird has to search out new definitions of murder and correlate them with what it already knows."
"I think it's inhuman," Gelsen said.
"That's the best thing about it. The watchbirds are unemotional. Their reasoning is non-anthropomorphic. You can't bribe them or drug them. You shouldn't fear them, either."
. . . but as subsequent events will prove, however, there are very good reasons to be afraid, very afraid . . .
Comments: The FAA estimates that by 2020 there should be about 30,000 drones buzzing through America's skies, prompting us to wonder just how many of them, if any, will be watchbirds; for more go to Wikipedia HERE and HERE.
- The Internet has loads of information about Robert Sheckley HERE (Wikipedia), HERE (FictionMags), HERE (the ISFDb), and HERE (the IMDb); Project Gutenberg has more Sheckley short fiction HERE; and "Watchbird" itself has a sizable ISFDb listing HERE.
- We previously touched on homicidal machines HERE.

The bottom line: "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel."
The creature

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