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Masters of Science Fiction: Watchbird

Masters of Science Fiction was a hard-core science fiction show created by ABC in 2007. Each episode utilised high quality acting talent, and attempted to discuss a modern-era technology issue from a storyline setting - short stories of various authors were used as material. Despite the calibre of the recordings, ABC aged the series after just six episodes, and only four were originally shown.

Watchbird was not one of the original four to be aired, and has only seen airtime in countries other than that of its birth, at time of writing.

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Set in the near-future, and following DARPA's trend to robotise the American military, Watchbird is derived from a short story by Robert Sheckley, and directed by Harold Becker.

Watchbird is an artificial intelligence weapons system. It was created by Scientific visionary Charlie (Sean Astin) who saw Watchbird as a way to minimise casualties. The system uses a series of robotic fixed wing 'birds', dependent on solar power rather than fuel, who patrol the skies above Iraq and Afganistan. They have artificial intelligence made possible by human brain matter - Charlie's own - grafted onto their systems. They don't share Charlie's memories as such, but they do think like him - think like a human, without the motivations of a human.

They have a leader, a mentor-bird, whom Charlie talks with directly. Slightly smarter than the others, she was the prototype, and has the most direct connection to Charlie's mind. He gives instructions to her, she processes, and puts the instructions into a form the others can understand, then distributes it to them over a wireless network the birds share.

Their mission, as they themselves call it, is to patrol the skies, and watch for danger. If they see an insurgent, identified as a person intent on taking another's life, they act on their sole discretion, firing twin electrical charges, designed to incapacitate, or kill.

Watchbird is a great hit with the troops, saving many lives, and taking out enemy combatants that threaten troops and friendlies alike.

It is perhaps too much of a success. Valentine, a government agent from the NSA appropriates the Watchbird programme to guard home soil. He feels it will be a hit with voters, and help the flagging president get re-elected.

Charlie disagrees, strongly. However, he goes along, frequently voicing his concerns. The film is full of great dialogue between Charlie and his boss (James Cromwell), who engage in a deeply thought-provoking ethical debate about national security and its implications, and then again about the use of AI as police units.

It tries hard to pack a complex storyline into 44 minutes of time, but should have been a film of twice that length. Still, the material in here, is both enjoyable, and extremely thought provoking, especially as it is based directly on current events and technology trends.

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