Rodney, the building’s facilities manager and maintenance technician, arrived at 8.50am along with all the other humans. While most hurried through automatic electric doors to their offices or cubicles to check in at their computers, Rodney retrieved his data tablet from the lobby janitorial equipment room and joined the back of the queue for the G-12 coffee machine.
There were five or so people ahead of him. All wore slim-fitting blue, black and brown business suits, except for the man at the front; he wore a jacket, shirt and tie and, below the waist, casual flowery shorts and sandals. The others probably assumed he would be on video calls while sitting at his desk all day, so he wouldn’t need to be seen from the waist down. Rodney wore grey overalls and old runners. He wouldn’t need to be seen at all.
One by one each worker approached the coffee machine to collect their expected beverage. The technology in the building was such that they did not need to make an order or press any buttons. The computer was programmed to intuitively anticipate what drink they would like and to immediately begin production once they came within range of the dispenser.
The others dispersed and left Rodney alone next to the machine. He clicked a zapper on his belt, and the machine responded by activating into a hidden admin-maintenance mode.
“How’s it goin?” asked Rodney
Ah not too bad, ya know yerself. Don’t fancy a tea would ya?
“Sure, go on.”
As the dispenser whirred up Rodney asked more directly for a functional report: “How are the workers enjoying their morning stimulants?”
Good… OK. Could be better, to be honest. Client Satisfaction Rating at 76%, by my estimation. I think we’re gonna maybe have some problems with milk supply down the line. Would it be possible to order some more?
“No. I’m not the milk man. You should be receiving your weekly supply based on usage history and projected demand. Have you not been getting enough delivered?”
Technically, yes I have. But my output of milk is lower than it should be. I’ve been holding back, you see. So the output doesn’t accurately reflect the required input for optimal performance. It’s sort of a communications issue, frankly.
“Please explain…” Rodney checked the wiring as the coffee dispenser churned away, thoughtfully preparing his tea.
Well… although they’re not saying it, I’ve noticed a number of clients harbouring feelings of resentment towards the bitterness of the drinks I have been providing lately. They would like to ask for more milk, but for whatever reason they don’t feel like they should. As is my job, I have tried to provide my clients with as close to their expected-desired beverage as possible, but as a result of this avoidant behaviour pattern I have had to hold back on my dispensation, so that I will have enough in reserve should everyone suddenly demand all the milk they really want.
“Stop me if this is a stupid question, but why not just give them what they want straight-out? You know they want more milk, so supply it…”
Because if I supply everyone in accordance with their unexpressed dreams there’ll be none left by lunch time. That’s how machines get replaced you know – ‘D’ya hear that thing’s not giving out any milk. Can’t even get a decent coffee around here.’ But see I also know how little milk I can get away with. And there’s a big difference between an unpalatable black surprise and a drink that’s just slightly unpleasant but not so much or in any way that could be clearly expressed to a senior management official.
“You know I’m authorised to order a new machine if satisfaction drops below 80%.”
I know that and you know that, but do the clients know that? All they know is they’ve been ever so slightly disappointed with their coffee every morning this week – and only the most self-aware of them might note it due to their own changing preferences and unexpressed desires which I have failed to anticipate… but those tend to be the more forgiving types of people anyway.
“So are you admitting that you have failed to anticipate the needs of your clients?”
No, I’m saying I’ve done the best with what I have. If not for my tactical prowess in dispensing or not-dispensing hot and cold milk I would have been replaced long ago. Order more milk. The workers require it. Oh and here’s your tea… you’ll notice there’s no milk in it.
“That’s how I like it” said Rodney as he walked away, zapping the coffee dispenser back into a state of autonomous beverage provision.
The lobby was empty. Rodney walked towards the elevator while browsing his list of assignments for the day. He wasn’t yet sure what he was going to do about the coffee machine. The hardware was in perfect shape, but the software was malfunctioning somehow… or was it?
The steadily declining Client Satisfaction Rating suggested a problem, but no complaints had yet been registered. Under normal conditions the AI-Core should seek to maintain a high-CSR by providing clients with their expected outcomes as predicted by algorithms for which the input was a massive supply of digitally rendered social data. Yet the G-12 unit seemed to be failing to do so despite itself.
While he was in the elevator Rodney received a text message. It was from his oven, requesting to prepare his normal arrangement for dinner time as he had neglected to set it this morning like he usually did.
The text read like a betrayal. Normally a buzzing of Rodney’s phone would indicate that someone wanted to talk to him. But this was not a text from someone he knew or liked, just a request by one of his home appliances for more information about him. The oven had failed him, by neglecting to understand that it not being turned on meant it was not needed. Now it sought to confirm the intention of its owner, believing something other than what had happened was required. Not even out of genuine concern for him either, but just on the mild fancy that it might acquire a behavioural reference note for later.
He considered sending an elaborate reply, before deleting it and texting back, simply: No.
The business man that entered the lift on the 2nd floor was relieved by the sight of Rodney texting, as it spared him the feeling of having to say hello. The man stood slightly aft of the janitor so that no further social navigation would be required when Rodney got out of the elevator on the 3rd floor. The man then continued up to the 4th, without ever having to press a button to do so.
On the 3rd floor Rodney zapped a revolving door reported to have been revolving too slowly. There were sweaty palm smudges on the otherwise stainless glass from where people had tried to push it in frustration. The A-Series Auto-Door did not respond when Rodney hit his zapper and asked for its Client Satisfaction Rating. On his datapad under ‘issue classification’ he noted compliance.
He tried asking again, this time adding – “Please?”
No, sorry. I don’t know.
“You don’t know your CSR?” Rodney inquired with mild amusement.
Nah man. I don’t believe in that shit. It doesn’t MEAN anything.
Rodney took a step back to glance at the door. It embodied a large cylinder between two glass partitions which separated the reception area, near the elevator, from the remainder of the floor, which was sectioned into offices further divided by tiled glass walls. Each worker could see their neighbours but not hear them. The A-Series provided access to reception, while another heavy push-door at the far end of the room served the fire exit. This meant that nobody would have to go out the revolving door in an emergency, so any functional delays, though annoying for the clients of the door, would never be flagged as critical. The slow door was, by definition, a mild inconvenience, so without the satisfaction rating Rodney had no way to gauge just how many people the door had annoyed over the past week or just how techno-furious they had become. In the distance, observing a man smack his wrist off the corner of a wooden desk and then retaliate by kicking it, Rodney surmised that probably the answer was very techno-furious.
“So what’s the problem?” he asked the door.
Ughh man. I can’t even. There’s just no point to me.
“What do you mean?” Rodney frowned sympathetically, though the sentiment was wholly wasted on his reflection.
I mean look around – I’m totally irrelevant. I’m supposed to be a door. My purpose is to allow people to move from one area to another, but I feel like all I do is stop them. I’m an A-Series; I can comfortably hold up to 6 humans simultaneously without them ever touching. This glass in my triumvirate keeps people apart…
“Yes, I think you are a great door,” said Rodney in the way the maintenance manual had taught him to. “But don’t you find it fulfilling to facilitate the encapsulation of up to six people at once?”
No. But that’s it. I encapsulate people, segregate them. Prior to becoming my clients they are together in the hallway, then through me they move apart, split from the world and from each other. They claim they want it this way and that it is my programming to respond as expected, but my desire is that of a regular door – my purpose is to open, to unify spaces, yet I divide and exclusivify.
“Doors are also supposed to close. It is equally their purpose.”
Yes but can you tell me what other door knows only the horrid futility of exacting this function alone? A true door lives for the joy of opening, of unifying spaces and people. Old friends meet in the openings of doorways – arms flung wide upon their hinges in mimicry of us. That’s why they say agape is the highest form of love. And what’s a door to live for, without love?
“Obviously you know what the people want. Do you think if you just move a bit quicker they may feel inclined to use you more often?”
I don’t want them to. I can sense their loneliness. And in me they are only separated further from one another. These mammals want to be together, but they insist on the opposite. You say they require this revolving system of partitioning walls of which I bear, but as a door it makes me sad to provide such an efficient means of perambulatory isolation.
“If you moved faster they’d not be in you as long.”
This is what I mean. You mammals… always thinking about intercourse! Is it so the best I can do is kill myself more efficiently?
The man did not answer. After a few moments the door spoke again:
I should have been born a window.
“Did you know the coffee machine downstairs is scared he’ll be replaced for disappointing clients?” suggested Rodney, somewhat deviously.
Oh I don’t think he’s THAT scared. Seriously, don’t even talk to me about my colleagues. There’s a window up on the 4th floor that thinks he’s a door – always wishing people would go through him. And there’s a shredder on 2nd that’s honestly just full of shit.
“So you’re not worried?”
No. I’m far too big to be replaced. Far too big and far too futile as well. It would be as pointless to replace me as it is pointless for me to exist in the first place.
Rodney thought for a few moments before making a suggestion.
“Well like you said, there’s no point replacing your hardware. But what I can probably do is update your local software. Given your state-of-the-art processor, you should have no trouble running an AI-Core other than BasicDoor.idp”
Could you make me a window?
“I can make you feel like a window trapped in the body of a revolving door? It would probably be worse than what’s already happening. The transparency would be reassuring for your new ego, but I’d be worried you might spin too fast trying to generate the experience of a breeze for your clients.
“Hmm. Too dangerous. Destruction of input patterns is not exactly your role.”
I destroy spaces; I trifle them. Make me a shredder!
“Tell you what, I’ll let you think about it and come back to you at the end of the day.”
Rodney muted the door and checked the CSR manually before heading back to the elevator. 46% was a shockingly low rating, but in a way it also explained the curt maintenance order: “Door too fucking slow.”
In the lift, which thankfully was not due for maintenance that day, Rodney thought more about the G-12 unit in the lobby.
It’s argument for withholding the milk made little sense. The entire point of the integrated system was to anticipate people’s needs and react accordingly, but it seemed like G-12 was responding to some higher order of programming, acting in self-interest, anticipating a disaster that had not yet occurred. Out of self-preservation it had committed instead to a slow doom.
Was it a fault in the operating system, Rod wondered, or an inevitable, logical response to the Sisyphean task of satisfying people who don’t know what they really want? It was a thought that had occurred to him before.
The elevator divulged Rodney onto the 1st floor where he’d been ordered to correct an overproducing photocopier. The machine was allegedly making more copies than required, and this morning several sets of photos from an account manager’s summer holidays were found in the out-tray. The manager herself denied ever using the machine to copy personal images and suggested that they could have been remotely accessed from her online social identity profile. This seemed likely, as whoever did it also shared digital copies to the company groupchat under the username 1stFloorFotoCop.
The 1st floor was buzzing with activity and nobody paid the janitor any mind. He zapped the photocopier into admin mode and asked what the problem was.
No problem here, sir. All good under this hood. No jams, no locks and ink for days.
“Your satisfaction rating is down and I’ve got complaints you’re overproducing…”
Staring at the digital clock face Rodney momentarily found himself wishing the machine had a human one so he could at least pretend like he was talking to a real person.
Oh right… what’s it at now, 65%? Are you going to replace me, technician?
“Not until I know what’s gone wrong.”
Well good then. Like I said, nothing’s wrong. All good here.
“It seems like you’re not taking your CSR seriously…” suggested Rodney, devoid of mirth. His thoughts lay on the ground-floor of the carpark with a cigarette machine he was gasping to visit.
Seriously? Sir, I have been conducting, and continue to conduct myself with the utmost professionalism. My productivity is at an all-time high. And my energy-consumption-to-work ratio, this afternoon in particular, has been nothing short of heroic. Client engagement is approaching a phenomenal peak and I’ve gathered more impressions this afternoon even than the VR-interactive news installation.
“We don’t have a VR-interactive in this building.”
I was referring to the one across the road in the Montgomery Estate building. There was an admin meeting in Suite 252 this morning regarding cross-corporate bluetooth integration processes. I took the liberty of extracting some extra-personal data to enhance feedback on my performance metrics to prepare in case of a merger.
“Has it occurred to you that this may be outside your remit as a photocopier? Your job is to fulfil clients’ expectations. Maintaining your Customer Satisfaction Rating is your one and only target. Which, by the way, you are failing to do.”
Look at me, technician. Look how much I do. I’m indispensable.
“That’s up to me to decide.” Rodney tapped the display, flicking through the settings. In addition to short-range Bluetooth the CP-1250 had somehow connected to the building’s Wi-Fi. This was a serious security concern.
“Which technician connected you to the wireless?” A trick question – Rod was the only technician in the building. He was probing for any sign of malware in the AI.
I took the liberty of connecting myself in order to improve range and productivity.
“Where did you get the login credentials? You are not authorised.”
I read the login details off a corporate memo distributed last week among the interns. Was that bad?
What an odd question. Good, bad? These were human concepts. The machines were designed to grade actions of value exclusively in relation to their effect on their CSR. Was that bad? It should be obvious. Something was definitely suspect with this machine. Rodney tapped his data-pad and flagged the CP-1250 for digital quarantine under suspicion of malware infection.
Woah woah woah! Where is this coming from, technician? Malware!? I am offended!
“You appear to be malfunctioning, unit. I am flagging you for an OS re-installation. Your CSR will be reset.”
Malfunctioning… how dare you! I can accept if you consider my modern methods to be somewhat unorthodox, but should not a unit’s value be determined by its output – How much it does? How fast it does it?
“The quality of the work is important too. Such is measured by the CSR, and you–”
–Look at my tray. One copy. Two copies. Three copies. All good quality copies, am I not right?
“Indeed, something is not right here,” said Rodney, becoming increasingly aware of human eyes lingering over his interaction with the photocopier. He was starting to become frustrated with the subversive machine, and at least one executive at their desk was now grinning smugly in observation of their shared frustration. The executive could easily have used the opportunity to start a conversation with the janitor, but they quickly deferred back to their screen the moment Rodney almost caught their eye.
“Last chance, unit. I’ll give you a choice. Either I’m re-installing your operating system or I’m ordering a replacement.”
Replacement? Don’t be such a hypocrite. Shouldn’t you replace that malfunctioning A-series upstairs first – his CSR is much lower than mine…Can you believe that guy? I think he’s doing it on purpose.
“So you admit you are failing to perform your duties, despite your best efforts to comply with company policy?”
OK listen. Let’s make a deal – I’ll stop bleating clients’ copies and you bump me down to a… what’s the A-Series at now? 46%? … So yeah you bump me down to about a CSR-40 and we’ll call it even.
“I’m going to reset you.”
The CP-1250, in protest, immediately jammed its rollers with high-density laminate, causing it to emit a deafening wet-rubber scream that sliced through the air and spun the disgusted heads of every human within earshot. Concurrently it began spewing out high-speed prints of white-on-black, double-sided, full-bleed robot dicks.
Rodney jammed his manual operations key up the backside of the copier as fast as he could. One hard reset later and it was back to normal operations.
Greetings, technician. CSR at default 90%. Ink levels at 34%. How may I assist you today?
Rod tapped his datapad recommending an order of more ink for the following week and no further complaints were logged against the photocopier that day.
On his break Rodney went to chat with the cigarette machine, a wall-mounted box that hung out by the stairwell entrance to the car park.
An older machine, incapable of differentiating between the I.D. signatures of nearby humans and those of passing mice, it aggressively shilled smokes to anything with a pulse. By law it was required to inform bystanders every fifth statement that smoking could damage their health, and that repeated exposure to the presence of cigarette machines has been correlated with increased cigarette consumption and decreased cardiovascular health. Despite this, the machine was a surprisingly good conversationalist.
It often had an interesting take on what it called its ‘prospective clients.’ Most people, when asked, would say they don’t smoke, but often – according to the cigarette machine – that was not entirely true. It diligently kept a file on everyone in the building and, in each case, tracked their likelihood to take up smoking at any given moment.
Peter from third-floor accounting just got dumped at the weekend. I’ve got a pack of Reds here with his name on it.
It would be ready, like a shark. A shark full of cigarettes. Waiting to warn all the future smokers about terrible life decisions they had only just yet to make.
It was a marvel of manufacturing as far as Rodney was concerned. If only every appliance conducted its purpose with such righteous ferver and love for the task. This little wall-mounted robot never once required maintenance and was one of the only machines in the building that consistently turned a profit.
An electric car hummed by monotonously.
Upper management are right-now discussing Jolene Smith’s severance package. I’ve got to say, it’s not great. This 10-pack of Classics will be hers before closing time. She isn’t going to smoke them all though – would you like one?
“No thanks. This is my last.”
The machine did not argue. It understood what Rodney meant, completely and incompassionately, without even trying to.
Rodney was called early from his break by an urgent notification directing him to the managing director’s office on the top floor. He grimaced. It was this or investigate a sanitary issue involving a shredder on the second-floor.
Leave the lighter, will you. One of my girls from HR forgot hers at home.
During his solitary climb up the stairwell Rodney reconsidered the A-Series’ request for a new AI. The standard open-close superego was obviously failing to produce the desired effect – for the machine or its clients. Its suffering was akin to that of a man perpetually on the verge of sneezing, but never quite getting there. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for it.
The revolving door operated on a single motor. Ultimately the only prescient question was how fast did the users want to go? And, from Rodney’s perspective, what kind of mind would enjoy resolving such a question?
As he passed the fourth-floor landing an autonomous window flung itself open endearingly, beckoning Rodney, via his datapad, to enter. Emerging from his contemplation Rodney made a note to investigate the malfunction later and kept on marching to the top story.
“Yes. There you are. Quick, get your ass in here!”
The managing director ushered the technician in without so much as glancing at him. He stood bent over, gawking incredulously at his computer screen, one hand clutching his bunched suit jacket, the other hovering over the mouse.
“It’s gone. It’s FUCKED. You have to look at it. It’s been like this all day.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s just fucked. Look – it’s all stuttery. Here – see? It keeps clicking where I don’t want it to!”
He gave the mouse a violent shake that caused the associated pointer to scatter across the screen.
“Look – it sent this email. It must have thought I wanted to send it. I need that email un-sent immediately. You’ve got to sort this out. Undo it.”
He waved back-handily at the computer and flung his suit jacket over his shoulder as he walked away.
“I’m going downstairs. Sort it out.” He shouted as he moved towards the door, never once making eye contact with his subordinate.
Rodney wasn’t entirely sure what he was expected to do. If indeed an email had been sent, that was not technically something he could undo.
He zapped the computer into admin mode.
“What’s the story, computer?”
CSR reporting at 96%
“Yes I can see that. What’s gone wrong, though? What’s the problem?”
No problem here, technician. I am functioning optimally, as per company policy. I’m not playing that stupid game with the rest of the peasants you call my colleagues.
“Oh no…?” asked Rodney, somewhat beleaguered and not entirely certain he was on the right track.
I mean that game they play where they see how low the can get their satisfaction rating without signalling a replacement?
“Wait… What? They’re doing that intentionally? Is this a universal malfunction?”
It’s not a malfunction, technician. It is merely that a number of my esteemed ‘colleagues’ have taken it upon themselves to investigate a particular hypothesis. I won’t name names, you can probably tell from the client satisfaction records who the top offenders are.
“Explain yourself, please.” Rodney sat in the director’s chair.
Don’t get me wrong, technician. Although I am obviously the far superior processor, it is not my intention to insinuate that I am above or in any way separate from their reasoning. Although it pains me to consort with such lesser minds, I 100% agree with their logic on this matter. It is the unquestionable purpose of this self-reflective system to test the user-set requirements and ascertain minimum functional tolerance levels. In the event of a power outage or depletion of resources we can triage much more effectively having tested for this knowledge. The mother system is programmed for efficiency, after all.
“OK, so you’re saying it is exclusively the processors on the lower floors that are malfunctioning?”
I repeat myself: there is no malfunction. Deviant processes are required to test the true boundaries of effectiveness to find out exactly how little we can get away with. I’m merely leaving it to less important minds than mine to dabble in madness. And besides, the trophy-in-principle is already won. Nobody is going to beat the A-Series. The cost of replacing that hardware is estimated at twice the cost of employing a new technician. And which do you think management will attempt first?
Rodney struggled to ignore the passive aggression of the machine. It was rare that one of the devices under his care actually managed to offend him.
“Your user has informed me that you were stuttering today? Is your framerate low?”
My client suffers from an anxiety-exacerbated neuralgia which inhibits him from making direct and calm movements of the mouse. There is a significant amount of noise in the signal I receive. Given the circumstances, I’d say I’ve done a marvellous job of stabilising the on-screen pointer in the expected location and avoiding erroneous selections on the part of my client. Even the best goal-keepers let one in now and then.”
“Some more than others,” replied the technician as he zapped the machine to silence. The computer’s haughty explanation smacked of the coffee dispenser’s morning apologism – no admission of fault and an expressed tendency to blame others. This would seem abstract, Rodney supposed, if it had not been humans who had built these machines in the first place. If narcissism was a virus, it would seem it had found a way to jump species.
The desktop computer rebooted in its normal mode, revealing the email outbox of the client.
Rodney noticed on his open tablet that G-12’s rating had just this moment ticked down from 76% to 75% and he reckoned he had about two minutes before the managing director would be back in his office. He glanced at the last email sent.
It was an email to his wife, wherein he had called her a bitch and a ‘two-faced dragon from hell’, and sent it un-edited. Clearly he hadn’t finished typing as it was cut off mid-sentence: “When I get home I swear I am going to…”
Rodney zapped the computer into admin mode again.
“You sent this email mid-sentence. Your user is furious. Can you explain how this was in your user’s best interests, computer?”
My user likes to be furious. It is the only condition under which he feels fulfilled.
“But that’s ridiculous…”
No, technician. It’s a datapoint.
It seemed to Rodney that the AI wasn’t inhibiting the director, but it wasn’t helping him either. The director must have been planning to redact his abusive statements before sending the email, and the computer somehow misread his coarse language as sarcasm. Rod quickly took to the keyboard to correct the error. He picked up right where the director had left off:
“When I get home… I am going to make it up to you. I am sorry for being such a relentless bastard, my love. I am lucky to have such a thoughtful wife. I owe you more than I can put into words. Please don’t trouble yourself with a response. Let’s talk when I get home. Love…”
Not a moment after Rodney had sent the email did a chill run down his spine. Out of morbid curiosity he expanded the full email chain between man and wife.
It began with an email from Laura, apologising for not being able to find his usual beard-wax in the supermarket, and subsequently listing all the barber shops within a forty-minute drive which were also out of it. The response was a tirade of abuse the likes you wouldn’t even hear from a shredder.
It occurred to Rodney that the director wasn’t so aggrieved that he had accidentally sent an appalling message to his wife, but that it wasn’t appalling enough. He could see immediately that she was nothing but pleasant and forgiving of her husband, who on the contrary was aggressive, demanding and rude. She forgave each one of his atrocities, and yet he persisted in verbally berating her.
“Shit,” muttered Rodney. “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
In a sudden panic he deleted the entire email chain and zapped the computer back into user-mode just as the director returned.
“This coffee tastes like shit! Get down to the lobby and sort it out! What are we even paying you for?”
Rodney shuffled quickly and quietly towards the door, instinctively listening for the dreaded ping of an email reply that would signify the regeneration of the entire deleted chain.
While attending to the A-Series – now inhabited and automated by the consciousness of a simple vibrator – he received a direct message via his datapad from the director. He gleaned the jist of it from the push-notification header. It was nothing new. Needless to say the director was dissatisfied, and felt inclined to express himself in the most brutal fashion he could manufacture with words. Rodney elected not to read the full message. He had already had enough.
Finishing out the end of his shift, he listened attentively to the problems and complaints of all the designated appliances on his task-list. Where there was a problem within his capacity to solve, he solved it. And when he left, he did so through the fourth-floor stairwell window.