Bird A Lesson in Biology

ON a clearing by a lake, flanked by tall oaks and sycamores, a group of young robots were playing hockey. Their wheels left crazy patterns in the newly mown grass as they zig-zagged back and forth in pursuit of a silver disc that sped inches above the ground, then hovered motionless for a few moments before sailing through the air out of reach. The silence was broken only by the crackle and hum of electric motors strained to maximum load, and the crunch of metal on metal as round, squat bodies recklessly cannoned into one another. Coloured flags fluttered on radio antennae that whipped through the air like rapiers as the robots accelerated and swerved in the mele. The Yellows were playing the Greens, while Reds and Blues cheered from the sidelines, or chased one another up and down the edge of the lake, or stood motionless with solar panels extended to catch the last few drops of precious energy before sundown.

Concorde Jet was beginning to tire. She'd chased backwards and forwards without let up, but it seemed the action was always somewhere else. She was beginning to resent being allocated the position of left back. The wings and the forwards were getting all the fun. No-one seemed to want to pass the disc to her. She called for it repeatedly, but time after time her radio broadcasts fell on deaf antennae. She could score goals with the best of them. Why wouldn't anyone give her a chance?

All of a sudden her circuits buzzed with joy as she found herself in control of the silver disc for the first time in the match. In a desperate lunge, she'd succeeded in intercepting a badly played forward pass. She felt a surge of power from her drive motor as she began to race towards the Yellow goal. Defenders stood facing her menacingly as she called out for support from her team-mates. She was just about to take a shot at goal when she noticed that no-one else was moving. Realising that something was wrong, she juddered to a halt, allowing the disc to speed across the grass.

All eyes were turned towards the trees, from where a biped tottered towards them, upper limbs outstretched, its soft pale body quivering and lurching as it shifted its weight from one lower limb to the other in a typical jerky motion. As it came closer, Concorde noticed the streaks of dirt on its emaciated body and tattered plastic tunic. A runaway! The biped had probably spend a week or more scraping for roots and berries and was clearly starving.

'W-h-o i-s y-o-u-r o-w-n-e-r?,' the Captain of the Yellow team boomed out, her metal casing rattling as she switched her loudspeaker on to full volume. The biped did not answer but continued to lurch forwards. Then its rubbery mouth-parts began to open and close, and a creaky, spluttering sound emerged, like an electric motor about to break down. 'C-a-u-t-i-o-n! D-o n-o-t a-p-p-r-o-a-c-h a-n-y c-l-o-s-e-r!' Called the Yellow Captain, beginning to panic as she tried to remember the standard safety drill. There had been some ugly incidents recently, where robots had been ambushed and destroyed by gangs of roaming bipeds. But the solitary biped ignored the order and continued its relentless approach.

Without warning, a spindly limb waved, and a rock crashed into the Yellow Captain's camera pod. Instantly blinded, she twisted her turret back and forth in agony while her friends looked on in horror. The biped was just about to launch a second rock when the silver disc flashed by, severing the raised limb at the root. The biped began to emit screeching sounds as red liquid pumped down its side. The disc flashed past a second time and the screeching stopped.

Concorde returned home to a severe scolding from her guardian. 'You had no right to play in the park without permission,' Boeing Jet was telling her. 'And in any case, at the first sign of trouble you should have called for help. You know that unauthorised culling is strictly illegal. I've a good mind to remove your batteries and keep you plugged into your extension lead!'

Boeing's rusty body shook with anger, sending up a shimmer of fine particles. But Concorde was in defiant mood. 'I don't see why we need bipeds anyway. They're just a nuisance. All they do is spoil things and hurt us whenever they get the chance. And they're useless as servants; there's nothing a biped can do that a robot can't do better. Why don't we just get rid of them all?'

'You wouldn't destroy all the apple trees, just because sometimes apples fell on us and broke our antennae, would you? Besides, the bipeds are of special scientific interest. They are the only organisms that are able to move themselves about. There's evidence that long ago there were many types of similar organisms. Some had four legs, some swam and some actually flew! But they all became extinct, though no-one knows why.'

Concorde imagined all those biological forms, wriggling and slimy, proliferating over their planet like weeds. She shuddered with disgust. 'All I can say is I'm glad they're not around now!'

Boeing was disappointed to witness this sad display of her ward's lack of sensitivity. It was an attitude that seemed to be becoming increasingly prevalent, especially amongst the young. If a thing seemed ugly or was of no practical use, destroy it. There seemed to be no appreciation that beauty and value could be more than a matter of superficial appearance. The ugliest weed still looked beautiful to the botanist examining its structure under a microscope. The bipeds, despite their grotesque appearance, were fascinating subjects of study, in addition to being the last link to an unknown past. Indeed, Boeing longed to have one of her own. Perhaps then Concorde would learn to be more appreciative. But bipeds were expensive to buy and even more costly to keep. she could never afford one on a Traffic Warden's salary. Even if she were lucky enough to win the Lottery, it took months or even years of bureaucratic red tape to get a license.

Later, her neighbour DeHavilland Turbo-Prop called by for a game of scrabble. DeHavilland was a good ten years her junior and still shiny, a successful sales executive for a double-glazing company. She and her two wards had recently acquired a biped and were still breaking it in.

'Believe me, Boeing, they're more trouble than they're worth,' her friend was saying. 'We've tried everything from beatings to electric shocks, but instead of behaving better, it only gets worse. Yesterday, it broke into our living room and nearly destroyed my microfilm library. In the end, we had to take it out into the garden and throw it in the pond. We held its head under the water for a good minute before it calmed down.'

Boeing sympathised with her friend. 'I know you've got to be firm; it'll pay dividends in the long run. There was a discussion on breakfast TV about it just this morning. You've got to persevere, that's what all the experts say.'

'I do hope so.'

'Tell you what, why don't you join me at my philosophy evening class tonight? It will give you something different to think about. Your Douglas and Vanguard can come over and keep Concorde company.'

'I'm not sure my computer is up to that kind of abstract reasoning, Boeing. You know me, I'm too practical for that sort of thing.'

'Nonsense! There's nothing to it,' her friend admonished her. 'Come along, it'll be fun!'

By the time Boeing and DeHavilland arrived, the room was almost full. Through a forest of camera pods, Boeing watched a crumpled looking lecturer motor nervously up and down in front of the display screen.

'Tonight, we're going to discuss the philosophical problem of other minds,' the ageing robot was saying. 'I wonder whether any of you has ever asked yourself how you can be sure what someone else is thinking or feeling, when you can never rule out the possibility that they are deliberately setting out to deceive you about their state of mind? How can you even know that anyone other than yourself has consciousness whether they have any real thoughts and feelings at all or merely behave in a way that leads you to think that they do? Or here's another angle you might think about. Have you ever wondered whether flowers or trees or even bipeds might not be conscious? For example, how do you know that wen a biped is injured, it doesn't feel pain, just as we do?'

'What an absurd idea!' thought Boeing.

'Bird' © Ruth Klempner 1999

'A Question of Biology' © Geoffrey Klempner 1995