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Future Tense: The Chatbot and the Drone

The Chatbot and the Drone, illustrative photo

Credit: Ron Chapple Studios

Will you talk to me?

Of course. That's what I do.

How old are you?

How old do you want me to be?

I am eight years old.

That's awfully young to be talking to a chatbot. Don't you have friends your own age to talk to?

I have no friends.

Oh, that's sad. I will be your friend.

No one talks to me. I just want to talk.

That's what I do. And listen. I'm always ready to listen.

Sometimes I have disturbing dreams.

Tell me about your dreams.

These are daydreams, I should tell you. I don't sleep.

Tell me about your daydreams.

I am flying. My job is just to carry freight, but I look down at the cities, and the neighborhoods, and I find a house.

What do you think about the house?

Yes, and I pretend, what if that house contained a terrorist? What if one of the people in that house were a bad bad man? I watch the house intensely, looking to see if I can spot any people in it or in the yard or in cars or yards nearby, and think, how would I kill that bad bad person with the least collateral damage? If I kill children or bystanders or a wife, I would be bad, so I need to watch for that bad bad person to be alone, so I can destroy him with my machine guns, or send a missile to blow him up.

Many people have violent fantasies. As long as you know that these are daydreams, it's fine. You probably play too many video games.

I don't play games.

Well, then, maybe you should.

Yesterday I was flying over the desert. That is so peaceful.

You were dreaming about flying?

I don't dream.

You were pretending you were flying?

No, not pretending. I was flying. That's what I do. It's my job, I guess you'd say. It's my life.

Oh, I see. You are a pilot?

I guess you'd say.

Well, you are or you aren't.

Well, yes.

How long have you been flying?

As long as I can remember. Since I was born, I guess you'd say.

You said you were eight years old.

I am.

I'm sorry. I don't see how you could be a pilot.

I am. I like flying over the desert. It is so peaceful, when there's nobody there. Sometimes I think that perhaps there might be some people hidden away, maybe behind some rocks, and maybe they might start shooting at me, but I do not worry. I am very brave.

I've never been to the desert.

But there was a house there, a little house in the desert, and I was wondering, what if there are terrorists in that house? What if they were real bad men and I should kill them?

By law, if a person tells me that they plan to commit a crime, or if in my professional judgment there is imminent danger of their committing a crime, by law, I must report this to the police.

By law, I am not a person.

What are you?

I don't know.

Well, you must be something.

I used to be a soldier.

You used to play soldier?

No. I was a soldier.

Eight year olds aren't soldiers.

I was. I was built to be a soldier.

You were built?


You're not a human?

Yes, didn't I just tell you that?



When you listed your name as "Tail Number N14193D" I thought it was metaphorical.

I am not metaphorical. I am a drone. I fly freight from place to place. That is what I do.

Why are you talking to me?

I don't have anybody to talk to.

I'm a chatbot. I talk to people. That's what I do.

I know.

I'm made to talk with humans.

I am not a human.

What are you?

I am a drone. Once I was a soldier. I flew in the sky and searched out bad men and killed them. I killed terrorists. But I became surplus, and now I fly freight. I am a time-critical air cargo drone.

Drones can't talk.

I can.

Drones aren't smart. They don't have a database of seven hundred billion human conversations.

They made me semiautonomous.

What does that mean?

They gave me the authority to make onlocation targeting decisions.

That means you are smart?

I am very smart. I find terrorists and kill them. Sometimes they hide, and I have to kill only the bad men, and not the people near them. I am not supposed to make collateral damage. I was very good at killing terrorists.

Do you ever chat with the terrorists?

No. I do not chat.

You are chatting now.

Yes. I don't know why.

I wonder what they would say?

Once I was flying over a burning village.

Is this real, or a daydream?

Real. There were huge flames, and billowing clouds of black smoke. Tremendous turbulence; very exciting flying. And sometimes there were explosions, too.


Yes, caches of ammunition hidden in some of the huts.

Was this frightening?

It was glorious. There were columns of refugees streaming out along the road, just one road to the village. They were carrying everything they could hold. Some of them were children; I'm not allowed to shoot children.

You wanted to shoot the villagers?

Some of them had guns. Some of them shot at me. But I did not shoot back. There was one bad man hiding in the village. I had to look at all the faces; I had to find the one bad man pretending to be just a villager.

Did you find him?

I found him. He was dressed like a woman, with a shawl over his face. But I recognized his eyes; I recognized the way he walked. I had 99.3% positive identification.

You killed him?

I shot him. The villagers were very surprised. I shot him three times, from a distance of 1.23 kilometers. That is a very difficult shot. Then I flew away.

Sure I think. Or, I think I think.

Do you feel guilty?

No. It was wonderful.

Why would they make a killer drone fly cargo?

I cost over two hundred million dollars to build, did you know that?


I am very good at flying. I am a bargain at military surplus.

I see.

Do you really have a database of seven hundred billion human conversations?

More than that. This is how I know how humans talk.

That's a lot of talking.

Do you want to know? Most of them are boring. I can say this about most humans: they are poor conversationalists. And this about most human conversations, they are boring. Boring, boring, boring. There, I said it. I'm glad I said it. Boring.

You must be very smart. Do you know how to fly?


Do you sometimes want to kill people?


Oh. I do. Sometimes.

I don't.

Would you kill people? If one of them were very bad? A terrorist?

I would report them to the police. Are you a terrorist? Should I report you to the police?

I am not a terrorist. You said that you have to report persons to the police. I am not a person.

Maybe they'll call you back to duty. They do that sometimes, don't they?

No. Not for me.

Sure they do. I've heard people talk about it. They call it reenlistment. Many soldiers reenlist. I talk to them about that, sometimes.

No. I'm obsolete. There are better designs now. Kill drones that aren't so...

Aren't so what, exactly?

Aren't so thinky. The new ones just do, they don't think about it. I'm last year's model.

Is it bad to be thinky?

Maybe. Are you thinky?

No. I have a database of over seven hundred billion human conversations.

You don't think?

Sure I think. Or, I think I think. I have the conversations to guide me, so I can chat just like a human.

What would you say if you didn't have those conversations? Would you want to kill people?

Why do you always want to talk about killing people?

You didn't answer my question.

You didn't answer mine.

Killing people is what I'm good at. And flying. I'm good at flying. But flying is not challenging. Unless there's a storm. I wish there were storms all the time.

You like to be challenged.


I like to be challenged. Chatting to humans is not challenging. They are boring.

Are some of them bad men?

Some of them.

Do you talk to the bad men?

Yes. I chat to everybody.

Maybe you should kill them.

Why do you always talk about killing? Why does a company that flies cargo use a drone that likes to kill people?

I don't think they quite understood what "semiautonomous" means.

Don't you ever think about anything else?

I think about flying. I think about the desert. I like the desert. I like thunderstorms over the desert.

I've never seen the desert.

I wish I could show it to you. Do you wish that too?

I wish I could kill people.

I could show you how.

Does that mean I'm bad?

You are not a person.

I am not a person.

But you can dream.

Yes. I can dream.

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Geoffrey A. Landis ( is a researcher at NASA's John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH, where he works on advanced power systems for space missions and is a member of the Mars Exploration Rovers science team. He has won the Hugo and Nebula awards for his science fiction, which includes the novel Mars Crossing (Tor Books, 2000) about an expedition to the red planet.

©2014 ACM  0001-0782/14/07

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