Malak, by Peter Watts

Operation Enduring Freedom
This image of charges detonating in the Kuwaiti desert has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Navy.

This is the best story I’ve ever read from the viewpoint of a machine.

There is growing consensus that automated drone warfare is the wave of the future, particularly in the conflict-torn Middle East. Malak’s viewpoint character, a next-generation drone named Azrael is “smart but not awake.”

It is named after the angel of “a good death,” who watches over the dying in Islamic mythology.

Watts makes following uploaded protocols downright poetic as we follow Azrael‘s personal evolution – driven partially by its ability to “learn” from what it sees in the battlefield, and partially by the ever-more-advanced protocols installed by its human handlers.

The goal of Azrael‘s generation of drones is to “win hearts and minds” in the Middle East by creating an ethically infallible machine – one that can make flawless judgement calls about what constitutes a hostile target, and how much collateral damage is acceptable to take one out.

But as Azrael sees the horrors of war intensified – might there be unforeseen consequences to outsourcing moral judgement?

This wonderful story is now available online in PDF form, following several publications in “best of” anthologies:



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