Robert Sheckley nailed the problem with drones in 1953

Don sends us, "the Gutenberg Project's copy of Robert Sheckley's 1953 story Watchbird from Galaxy Magazine about one nightmare scenario arising from the use of armed drones to solve all our problems. Also made into TV and radio episodes."

"I have an objection." Gelsen stood up. His colleagues were glaring coldly at him. Obviously he was delaying the advent of the golden age.

"What is your objection?" the representative asked.

"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."

"But, Mr. Gelsen, you yourself testified that the watchbird would not be completely efficient unless such circuits were introduced. Without them, the watchbirds could stop only an estimated seventy per cent of murders."

"I know that," Gelsen said, feeling extremely uncomfortable. "I believe there might be a moral danger in allowing a machine to make decisions that are rightfully Man's," he declared doggedly.

"Oh, come now, Gelsen," one of the corporation presidents said. "It's nothing of the sort. The watchbird will only reinforce the decisions made by honest men from the beginning of time."

"I think that is true," the representative agreed. "But I can understand how Mr. Gelsen feels. It is sad that we must put a human problem into the hands of a machine, sadder still that we must have a machine enforce our laws. But I ask you to remember, Mr. Gelsen, that there is no other possible way of stopping a murderer before he strikes. It would be unfair to the many innocent people killed every year if we were to restrict watchbird on philosophical grounds. Don't you agree that I'm right?"

Watchbird by Robert Sheckley


  1. I haven’t read this one, but I like Sheckley’s work quite a bit. I recommend The 10th Victim, and also the movie with Ursula Andress based on it. Funny, disturbing stuff.

  2. Er, what?

    The problem with drones is the more prosaic one of the likely impossibility of ensuring an autonomous armed machine does what it’s supposed to every time, not that killerbots infantilise mankind by dispensing lethal justice perfectly.

  3. When Cory mentions “drones” in the title here I’m not sure if he is talking about our current tech or some future tech but I don’t see how this is applicable to what has been in the news lately.  The drones the military employs are not automated killing machines, they are simply remote controlled airplanes.  There is a human behind the controls.  Yes, they do have auto takeoff and landing functions and can fly programmed routes but the actual killing is done by a human.  Of course, I can see how in the very near future the technology will exist to allow for full automation and at that point I think serious discussions need to be had before anything like that is allowed.  But for now, these are just remote controlled vehicles and I’m in favor of them if they protect pilots from harm and save money.  I’m not justifying any particular war, but wars happen, and if they do we should be as cautious and efficient as possible.

    1. Agree here… the quote and the real world scenario do not match (not yet any way).

      The real problem with drones is that we are causing terror in the countries they overfly. Imagine living life knowing that drones are flying 24 hours a day above you- right now (they can be heard), and that at any second it can send a bomb your way- killing anyone near the impact and also likely killing the first responders to the scene- ambulance, panicked parents, etc.

      I’m all favor of getting pilots out of the battle zone, but I don’t think we should be terrorizing countries for terrorizing us- rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. The US is doing it wrong.

        1. If you’re a U.S. taxpayer, I don’t see how you (or I for that matter) can wiggle out of the “we”, much though it may pain you.

          If you’re not a U.S. taxpayer, more power to you.

        2. And may I ask you to take a look at what you are responsible for. The government officials responsible for drone strikes are the same ones that were elected to office by the citizens of the US. I have the power (apparently) to stop drone war, and it is my responsibility.

          If you haven’t looked into the subject, maybe start here…

          If you are not from the US, then the “we” doesn’t pertain to you and you are free to ignore it.

      1. I’m not justifying how they are used but the fact that they CAN be used ethically (as much as that can be possible) in a war situation.  What you say about the collateral damage is just as true if the bomb came from a piloted plane (or cruise missile or any other method of delivering an explosive).

        1. The difference is that cruise missiles and piloted planes usually accompany a war, and wars usually end and let the people get back to their lives.
          How long are our drones going to be terrorizing these cities? 
          When you look into the facts of what the US is doing and the repercussions being created, there is nothing ethical about it. 

          1. Stop blaming the weapon for the policy, remotely piloted drones are simply taking over the tasks we used to do with manned aircraft and missiles, only they do it more accurately. 

            Don’t complain about “drones” complain about the security policy that seems to find it necessary to constantly bomb people in faraway countries with no real agency. Otherwise you are simply obfuscating the real problem.

          2. Stop blaming the weapon for the policy, remotely piloted drones are simply taking over the tasks we used to do with manned aircraft and missiles, only they do it more accurately.

            They do it with fewer consequences for the person pressing the button. It makes a difference.

    2. Here is where we are (publicly) with fully autonomous drones They have been in the air since 2011. We just haven’t announced their military deployment as yet.

      We have already deployed semi-autonomous drones under sea in a military capacity

      While we currently have humans behind the controls, we are spending huge piles of cash ($813 million on the X-47B alone) on perfecting fully autonomous drones. So complacency is not an option here. If you think we should not have fully autonomous drones, now is the time for that discussion, not after that have already been perfected.

      1. I think the ship has sailed on stopping their use for surveillance, even if we disagree.
        The missile strikes and U.S. exceptionalism are much more appalling, and the obfuscation/CIA/spawning new grieving men seeking vengeance.

    3. Wait a minute.  Are you saying that Federal employees are allowed to exercise human judgement and not just robotically follow written instructions?  I’d have to seem some pretty heavy proof before I’d believe a wild story like that!

      Thoreau’s classification of those who serve the state comes to mind: “In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.” 

    4. There is a human behind the controls.

      A late-adolescent human. What could go wrong?

      But for now, these are just remote controlled vehicles and I’m in favor of them if they protect pilots from harm and save money.

      No problem burning women and children alive as long as the person who pushes the button is safe and it doesn’t cost too much.

      1. So how is this different from any military aircraft since 1916? Except now the adolescent at the controls is actually several people and there are exact records of what went on. Drones if anything have massively increased the amount of scrutiny possible before firing because there is no longer a pilot to protect.

        There no longer has to be a choice between firing and saving the pilot or not firing and potentially getting shot down.

        Drones present a political problem in the sense that they make wars politically easy to get involved in, since the costs are small. However they are a massive improvement over older weapons in the amount of discretion given to the operators.

        Potentially drones represent a massive step towards reducing the civilian cost of war because their extended loiter time allows the operators to observe a target for an extended period of time, meaning that it is a lot easier to know what one is shooting at.

        This does not mean it is good policy to deploy them to a country to bomb anyone, you think might not like you, but that is a political problem. The US had previously done exactly the same thing with conventional weapons.

        The Only thing drones did was make it easier to scale up an existing policy, ironically because they promised much less collateral damage. Of course when one uses them all the time one will still miss every so often, and that is what gets reported.

        Now if you asked me there is no real reason the US should continue with drone strikes all over the world, it has become a foreign policy band-aid that, since it is cheap, is popular.
        The same has been true for “limited” military actions since the end of the Cold War, the US, given the biggest military in the world and essentially unassailable borders decided to use this instrument to solve all it’s problems.
        It’s not working so well but that has little to do with the weapons being used to carry out policy and much to do with the policy itself.

        Don’t curse “drones” it lets the lazy strategists, who can’t come up with a plan to properly engage the world, off the hook.

        Apologies for the rant, this is an issue that can get my blood up a bit.

        1. They make it more “convenient” to kill people whom somebody in your government has designated as enemies. There’s no upside to that.

          1. Yeah but people are gonna keep making it more and more convenient, that is not something that will change, hasn’t for the whole of human history.

            What needs to change is the policy, as a species we are unlikely to stop finding new and better ways to kill each other anytime soon.

    5. I understand your realism about the protection of pilots in a current military campaign.  But could the excerpt not also stand as a metaphorical interpretation of the military paradigm behind the drone program, which is one of constant preemptive threat elimination.  Adopting, as we have such a policy of war, creates a political philosophy, not unlike a machine imbued with human fear and reactivity.

  4. “Don’t you agree that I’m right?”

    Whooboy is this a LOADED QUESTION… Forcing someone to say that a person is right/wrong is a very, very touchy thing to do… And usually the person asking it has an agenda for asking it.

    1. “asking it” is so nice of you.  I always feel they’re narcissistically challenging me to insult them, especially when rhythm, tempo and metre develop around the word “right”.

      Right?  Right?  Right? You know?  Right?  See what I mean?  Right?  Right?  Right?  Yeah?  Right?  Right? Right?  Got it?  So xyz and abc, right?  Right?  Right?

      Descent of the red curtain, and cue tranquil pastoral scene.

  5. I think that it’s mainly the arguments against extra-judicial killings, made more in the radio adaptation (and perhaps the TV version) than in the original print version that bring it closer to today’s discussions.  The WatchBirds get to kill you if that’s what it takes to stop what they consider a murder.


    I say “what they consider to be a murder” because the “learning circuits” mentioned in the quote gradually expand the definition of “murder” to include the meat industry and then agriculture in general.  Of course we all know that a human bureaucracy would never fall into “mission creep” like that.  Well, not unless it gave them a bigger budget.

  6. I like Sheckley’s work quite a lot, usually (Crompton Divided was an early favorite, and I’m still waiting for a decent adaptation of The Game of X, which got mangled into the execrable superhero spoof Condorman), but this is of a piece with any number of science fiction books, post-Frankenstein, in which the inventors come up with this incredible, impossible technology, yet can’t or don’t bother to build in a kill switch. (See also: The Terminator, several Star Trek TOS episodes, etc.) 

  7. The version narrated in StarShipSofa No 216 was excellent:

  8. The story is Ok. 

    1) it has a R&D testing cycle that never passes the laugh test.

    2) it has a definition of murder that never passes the laugh test.(surgery is murder?)

    3). it has amazingly badly designed autonomous drones with no off switches.

  9. Why do these machines have to be so good at killing?  Why not hordes of animated teddy bears that entangle you in hugs?  

    (With air canisters to prevent suffocation, and that way you’ve got a dynamic positive pressure containment suit too!)

    (also, teddy bear herder would be the coolest job on the police force.)

  10. A poignant metaphorical interpretation of the military paradigm behind the drone program, which is one of constant preemptive threat elimination.  Adopting, as we have such a policy of war, creates a political philosophy, not unlike a machine imbued with human fear and reactivity.

  11.  I think the problem with drones is one of empathy.  Empathy is a critical for social animals.  Empathy provides a firm check on interpersonal violence.  Consider, the guys that dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, they killed tens  of thousands of children.  And they slept well for the rest their lives. If they had to bludgeon those children to death, they’d never had a good night sleep for the rest of their life.

    If soldiers were sent to a Taliban wedding to try and kill some high value target armed with rifles, they’d try very hard not to shoot women and children, or old men. Drone pilots just use a missile to kill everyone, then they go home and have themselves a good night sleep.  They simply don’t care, because they don’t have to experience what they’ve wrought.

    That’s what creeps most people out about drones.  Against a drone we’ve been shorn of oue last defense against violence at the hands of the other, their empathy.

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