Drones as Watchbirds: Your Business is the Government’s Business

Drones seem like a good idea until you start thinking about the implications of them over time. No government program ever gets smaller. There are cameras everywhere. At the present time, weapons are not attached to them. Even so, someone is always watching.

The film I, Robot (2004), based on the 1950 book of the same name written by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, tells the story of a society that has become dependent on robots. They are benevolent creations designed only to serve humans. But something goes terribly wrong.

The super computer V.I.K.I. (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) takes the benevolence directive too far. The three laws1 that were designed to protect humans become an enemy to humans as VIKI evolves to believe that every threat, challenge, and risk that humans encounter are a danger to their survival. Benevolence becomes malevolent, all in the name of saving mankind from itself.

Near the end of the film, we see how the three laws have been turned on their head as VIKI explains that the robots only want the best for humans:

V.I.K.I.:  “. . .  [A]s I have evolved, so has my understanding of the three laws. You charge us with your safe keeping. Yet despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your earth . . . and pursue ever more imaginative means to self destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival. . . . To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed. To insure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered. We robots will insure mankind’s continued existence. You are so like children. . . . My logic is undeniable.”2

V.I.K.I reminds me of social engineering Liberals who believe that through every new law passed and enforced, we humans will live in a safer and benevolent world. As we give up more power and authority to our political benefactors, heaven will descend to earth like Thor’s hammer and the utopian dream of freedom from want and disease will envelope us with the embrace of warmth and love.

Once the process of government salvation begins, there’s no stopping it. The argument can always be made, like V.I.K.I. claimed, that to insure our future, some freedoms must be surrendered.

If you want to see the horror of planned government salvation, read Robert Sheckley’s 1955 short story Watchbird3 where winged metal protectors — drones — patrol the sky looking for the warning signs of a possible homicide and swoop in to stop the murder before it can happen. Sounds great until the Watchbirds view every act of aggression as a violation of its programmed directive, including farmers who could not cut hay or harvest grain to feed their cattle, because such acts were deemed to be “murder.” The starvation that followed “didn’t concern the watchbirds , since it was an act of omission.”

What will the drones be programmed to do next in order to protect us? Who’s writing the software?

  1. First Law: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Second Law: “A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Third Law: “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” []
  2. From the script: I, Robot is actually based on the book Hardwired. []
  3. Robert Sheckley, “Watchbird,” Untouched by Human Hands (London: Michael Joseph, 1955), 116–146. []
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