"Look, I'm no scientist or engineer. I've just handled cost and production and let you boys worry about how. But as a layman, watchbird is starting to frighten me."
"No reason for that."
"I don't like the idea of the learning circuits."
"But why not?" 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.
"No chance of it," Macintyre said. "The watchbirds are complex, I'll admit, but an M.I.T. calculator is a whole lot more complex. And it hasn't got consciousness."
"No. But the watchbirds can learn."
"Sure. So can all the new calculators. Do you think they'll team up with the watchbirds?"
Gelsen felt annoyed at Macintyre, and even more annoyed at himself for being ridiculous. "It's a fact that the watchbirds can put their learning into action. No one is monitoring them."
"So that's the trouble," Macintyre said.
"I've been thinking of getting out of watchbird." Gelsen hadn't realized it until that moment.
"Look, Chief," Macintyre said. "Will you take an engineer's word on this?"
"Let's hear it."
"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."
The intercom on Gelsen's desk buzzed. He ignored it.
"I know all this," Gelsen said. "But, still, sometimes I feel like the man who invented dynamite. He thought it would only be used for blowing up tree stumps."
"You didn't invent watchbird."
"I still feel morally responsible because I manufacture them."
The intercom buzzed again, and Gelsen irritably punched a button.
"The reports are in on the first week of watchbird operation," his secretary told him.
"How do they look?"
"Send them in in fifteen minutes." Gelsen switched the intercom off and turned back to Macintyre, who was cleaning his fingernails with a wooden match. "Don't you think that this represents a trend in human thinking? The mechanical god? The electronic father?"
"Chief," Macintyre said, "I think you should study watchbird more closely. Do you know what's built into the circuits?"
"First, there is a purpose. Which is to stop living organisms from committing murder. Two, murder may be defined as an act of violence, consisting of breaking, mangling, maltreating or otherwise stopping the functions of a living organism by a living organism. Three, most murderers are detectable by certain chemical and electrical changes."
Macintyre paused to light another cigarette. "Those conditions take care of the routine functions. Then, for the learning circuits, there are two more conditions. Four, there are some living organisms who commit murder without the signs mentioned in three. Five, these can be detected by data applicable to condition two."
"I see," Gelsen said.
"You realize how foolproof it is?"
"I suppose so." Gelsen hesitated a moment. "I guess that's all."
"Right," the engineer said, and left.
Gelsen thought for a few moments. There couldn't be anything wrong with the watchbirds.
"Send in the reports," he said into the intercom.
High above the lighted buildings of the city, the watchbird soared. It was dark, but in the distance the watchbird could see another, and another beyond that. For this was a large city.
To prevent murder ...
There was more to watch for now. New information had crossed the invisible network that connected all watchbirds. New data, new ways of detecting the violence of murder.
There! The edge of a sensation! Two watchbirds dipped simultaneously. One had received the scent a fraction of a second before the other. He continued down while the other resumed monitoring.
Condition four, there are some living organisms who commit murder without the signs mentioned in condition three.
Through his new information, the watchbird knew by extrapolation that this organism was bent on murder, even though the characteristic chemical and electrical smells were absent.
The watchbird, all senses acute, closed in on the organism. He found what he wanted, and dived.
Roger Greco leaned against a building, his hands in his pockets. In his left hand was the cool butt of a .45. Greco waited patiently.
He wasn't thinking of anything in particular, just relaxing against a building, waiting for a man. Greco didn't know why the man was to be killed. He didn't care. Greco's lack of curiosity was part of his value. The other part was his skill.
One bullet, neatly placed in the head of a man he didn't know. It didn't excite him or sicken him. It was a job, just like anything else. You killed a man. So?
As Greco's victim stepped out of a building, Greco lifted the .45 out of his pocket. He released the safety and braced the gun with his right hand. He still wasn't thinking of anything as he took aim ...
And was knocked off his feet.
Greco thought he had been shot. He struggled up again, looked around, and sighted foggily on his victim.
Again he was knocked down.
This time he lay on the ground, trying to draw a bead. He never thought of stopping, for Greco was a craftsman.
With the next blow, everything went black. Permanently, because the watchbird's duty was to protect the object of violence--at whatever cost to the murderer.
The victim walked to his car. He hadn't noticed anything unusual. Everything had happened in silence.
Gelsen was feeling pretty good. The watchbirds had been operating perfectly. Crimes of violence had been cut in half, and cut again. Dark alleys were no longer mouths of horror. Parks and playgrounds were not places to shun after dusk.
Of course, there were still robberies. Petty thievery flourished, and embezzlement, larceny, forgery and a hundred other crimes.
But that wasn't so important. You could regain lost money--never a lost life.
Gelsen was ready to admit that he had been wrong about the watchbirds. They were doing a job that humans had been unable to accomplish.
The first hint of something wrong came that morning.
Macintyre came into his office. He stood silently in front of Gelsen's desk, looking annoyed and a little embarrassed.
"What's the matter, Mac?" Gelsen asked.
"One of the watchbirds went to work on a slaughterhouse man. Knocked him out."
Gelsen thought about it for a moment. Yes, the watchbirds would do that. With their new learning circuits, they had probably defined the killing of animals as murder.
"Tell the packers to mechanize their slaughtering," Gelsen said. "I never liked that business myself."
"All right," Macintyre said. He pursed his lips, then shrugged his shoulders and left.
Gelsen stood beside his desk, thinking. Couldn't the watchbirds differentiate between a murderer and a man engaged in a legitimate profession? No, evidently not. To them, murder was murder. No exceptions. He frowned. That might take a little ironing out in the circuits.
But not too much, he decided hastily. Just make them a little more discriminating.
He sat down again and buried himself in paperwork, trying to avoid the edge of an old fear.
They strapped the prisoner into the chair and fitted the electrode to his leg.
"Oh, oh," he moaned, only half-conscious now of what they were doing.
They fitted the helmet over his shaved head and tightened the last straps. He continued to moan softly.
And then the watchbird swept in. How he had come, no one knew. Prisons are large and strong, with many locked doors, but the watchbird was there-- To stop a murder.
"Get that thing out of here!" the warden shouted, and reached for the switch. The watchbird knocked him down.
"Stop that!" a guard screamed, and grabbed for the switch himself. He was knocked to the floor beside the warden.
"This isn't murder, you idiot!" another guard said. He drew his gun to shoot down the glittering, wheeling metal bird.
Anticipating, the watchbird smashed him back against the wall.
There was silence in the room. After a while, the man in the helmet started to giggle. Then he stopped.
The watchbird stood on guard, fluttering in mid-air-- Making sure no murder was done.
New data flashed along the watchbird network. Unmonitored, independent, the thousands of watchbirds received and acted upon it.
The breaking, mangling or otherwise stopping the functions of a living organism by a living organism. New acts to stop.
"Damn you, git going!" Farmer Ollister shouted, and raised his whip again. The horse balked, and the wagon rattled and shook as he edged sideways.
"You lousy hunk of pigmeal, git going!" the farmer yelled and he raised the whip again.
It never fell. An alert watchbird, sensing violence, had knocked him out of his seat.
A living organism? What is a living organism? The watchbirds extended their definitions as they became aware of more facts. And, of course, this gave them more work.
The deer was just visible at the edge of the woods. The hunter raised his rifle, and took careful aim.
He didn't have time to shoot.
With his free hand, Gelsen mopped perspiration from his face. "All right," he said into the telephone. He listened to the stream of vituperation from the other end, then placed the receiver gently in its cradle.
"What was that one?" Macintyre asked. He was unshaven, tie loose, shirt unbuttoned.
"Another fisherman," Gelsen said. "It seems the watchbirds won't let him fish even though his family is starving. What are we going to do about it, he wants to know."
"How many hundred is that?"
"I don't know. I haven't opened the mail."
"Well, I figured out where the trouble is," Macintyre said gloomily, with the air of a man who knows just how he blew up the Earth--after it was too late.
"Let's hear it."
"Everybody took it for granted that we wanted all murder stopped. We figured the watchbirds would think as we do. We ought to have qualified the conditions."
"I've got an idea," Gelsen said, "that we'd have to know just why and what murder is, before we could qualify the conditions properly. And if we knew that, we wouldn't need the watchbirds."