09 August 2012

#fridayflash: uptime

Beth held back a sigh. Her tablet screen had just gone red, and a blinking  message saying, "URGENT -- report to the Progress Room immediately" had appeared. She undocked her tablet and did a slow jog to the elevators, checking the executive office cluster as she passed by it. All of the executives were away from their desks.

Doesn't mean they're all in the same meeting, she told herself as the elevator call button scanned her thumbprint. But she knew they probably were, since it was time for the weekly status meeting.

The elevator arrived, and Beth told it to take her to the Progress Room, which, it turned out, was only three floors away from her cubicle. She paused in the elevator bays, searching her tablet for all references to robot status and the Office Worker Automation project. If it was urgent and they were asking her to attend a status meeting, then it had to be about the new robotic office team.

Beth adjusted her features into her best poker face, palm-scanned the door open, and followed the arrows her augmented-reality spectacles displayed to make her way to the meeting room.

Sure enough, the entire executive team of GovCorp was there already. John nodded her in, while Ratna indicated an empty chair for her to occupy.

It was Gloria who spoke first. "We were just reviewing the latest weekly status reports, and saw some odd numbers," she said. "The OWA project seems to be losing efficiency every week." She hand-signaled the room's presentation screen. It displayed a line graph in response, showing a shaky but steady downward trend. "We just wanted to know if there were any... technical reasons this should be. We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."

"That's correct," said Beth. "Per the specifications and instruction manual, the robots need an hour downtime every day for maintenance, recharging, and data backup."

"All of them need an hour, every day?"

"Yes," said Beth. "May I?" She pointed her tablet at the presentation screen and made a few taps and gestures. Messages from her to various members of the executive appeared, pointing out the maintenance duration.

Gloria looked pained. "But we need these to work 24/7! All of our contracts assumed... can't we squeeze the extra hour out of them? Delay the maintenance?"

Beth shook her head and displayed more messages. "The one-hour window is the minimum. Either you run the robots at 100% for 23 hours and then let them run maintenance at 100% for one hour, or you run them at 100% for 14 hours and then let them run at 90% for 10 hours. Those are the choices."

"There must be some alternative." That was John.

"The manufacturer says there isn't. If we want more work, we need to buy more robots. I put that in my pre-launch report," Beth said, displaying the cover page of the report.

"We can't afford more robots," said Ratna. "We need to find a way to make these run 24/7."

"You could hire a human team to do one of the projects," said Beth.

Gloria smiled. "These robots... they're highly... configurable, aren't they?"

Beth shrugged. "Sure. That was a big part of the pre-launch work, getting them set up to take over from the human project teams."

"So... couldn't they just be, configured to work 24/7? Like an override?"

John nodded vigorously. "An override! Change the settings to what we need!"

Beth counted to ten before answering. "There is no override for maintenance mode," she said, displaying the relevant documentation page. "And configuration only switches between 1 hour at 100 or 10 hours at 90. No other choices."

The block in the centre of the table turned blue and chimed. The presentation screen went blank.
"That's the sales report arriving," said Gloria. "Thank you for all of your... information, Beth. We'll let you know what our decision is."

"Wait," said Ratna. "Let her stay. We were going to release the numbers in the next newsletter anyhow, and I want to talk more about this maintenance window problem."

John palmed the cube, which turned pink in response to his positive ID. The display screen showed a line graph, which had a far sharper downward trend than the robot productivity graph Beth had seen when she came into the meeting.

"We won't be needing those maintenance hours at this rate," said Ratna. "What's the analysis?"

Gloria made a gesture with her hand. The diagram transformed into an analysis bar graph. The "lack of customer disposable income" bar stood out amongst the other reasons like a skyscraper amongst bungalows.

"Wha?" said John. "We're not in a recession."

"We will be." Beth said the last, which made the team glare at her, since she wasn't answering a technical question. "Companies all over the country have been replacing staff with robots. The only people left are tech support types like me and managers like you. Everyone else is out of a job. I heard it on the news this morning on the way to work."

"But if we hadn't automated, we wouldn't have been able to cut prices," said John. "Robots work 24/7, okay 23/7, and they're more efficient than humans."

"Why don't you go, Beth," said Gloria. "We'll call you back down when we're ready to discuss the maintenance issue further."

Beth picked up her tablet and headed for the elevator bay. Along the way she spotted a group of robots linking together with their data probes — the robot equivalent of a closed-door meeting. She envied them.


  1. Very well done! Scifi is the perfect way to make this point. Is this a metaphor for outsourcing, by chance?

    1. It's partly a metaphor for outsourcing, but also partly a metaphor for something I learned from an article about VisiCalc: how much spreadsheets changed management, because they let people do "what if?" math with ease. The problem with "what if?" math is that you have to follow it through right to the end, not just as far as your spreadsheet calculated.

  2. Of course within moments of finding out you have sweet robots at your disposal, you want to find a way to jailbreak them. Funny to imagine jailbreaking them winds up helping a corporation screw over the world even worse. Darn that Apple!

    1. And this is precisely why I think a good grounding in basic Newtonian physics should be part of any MBA programme.

  3. I wonder what humans will do when robots take over the work load completely? It's an interesting premise - a recessiion because no one much is employed any more. Good story.

    1. People forget that Marx observed that labour gets sold by the proletariat in exchange for capital, which is then exchanged for goods and services. No capital, no-one buying goods and services. Pretty basic, but people forget it's a closed circuit.

  4. this reminded me of a fact that always strikes me at the supermarket. There are staff members there always trying to usher you to the self-service check outs and I'm stood there thinking you're only doing yourself out of your own job by doing this.

    marc nash

    1. I've noticed that too, and the best answer I've got from people is that by the time the self-service counters are there, the layoffs have already happened. The staff are directing you to self-service because if everyone went to a clerk's checkout, there's insufficient staff for the necessary level of service.

  5. Perfect logic, when the humans have mostly been replaced by robot workers, no one is earning a wage to buy the product the robots are ... producing.

    Well written, and quite scary too.

    1. I have old Bloom County comic strips joking about how certain national economies are changing from production-based to service-based. So that's what, the late 80s? Somehow the logic always gets buried under other stuff in real life.

  6. I've watched this happen. The auto parts plant where I used to work had over 400 workers, then after robotics and outsourcing to Mexico, the number of jobs were down to a hundred. This is before the recession. After the recession, there's about fifty jobs left. It's like that all over west Tennessee and the economy is devastated. The future is already here, and parts of it are terrifying.

    Throwing up a mirror on this kind of thing is one of the best things science fiction does. Great story.

    1. Wow. That's awful.

      One of the things I was thinking about when I wrote this is something a friend of mine told me about Henry Ford -- he asked why his own workers weren't buying Model Ts and figured out it was because their wages were too low to allow for buying a car. So he raised their wages. The prices of the cars had to go up as well, of course, but not enough to discourage the workers from buying cards.

  7. Yes, if you automate the workforce...where will humans get their money to buy enough to keep the economy going?

    1. Funny how many people leave that out of their calculations, eh?

  8. Management is always SO out of touch. Nice one.

    1. Well, when the filters get too severe, distortion happens. Thanks for reading!


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