Saturday, May 23, 2015

The World of Robot Boss is Coming

A story I wrote called "Robot Boss" appeared in the March, 2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.  It's about an office worker that is having to deal with the AI that runs the department he works in when an important item sent to them is lost.  The AI blames the office work and tasks him with recovering the missing item.  The office work knows for certain that he did not lose the item, but also knows that in a world where everyone with a job has an "infallible" AI for a boss, simply insisting that it wasn't his fault will not be enough to get him off the hook.  
The idea for the story came from the marriage of my own experience as a middle manager of a legal support company similar to the one where the main character works (purely a coincidence, I assure you), and an article I read in Scientific American's May, 2013 issue entitled, "Who's the Boss?  Next-Gen Factory Robots Could Call the Shots," part of their in-depth report on the Future of Manufacturing.  
The gist of the article is that employees in the future will very likely find themselves working for robots, or the computational equivalent there of.  Robots, or other forms of automated systems, would do the bulk of the work, faster and more accurately that human workers could, while the humans would assist them in their functions, performing those steps that they could, still, do better than the robots.  In my story, the main character spends a good part of his work day translating hand-written passages in the documents his company receives that defeats the optical character recognition software of the AI.  This is something I've seen in my own work, even with the rise of digital medical records, there are still scanned notes that our software can't render.  
Reading this article, I realized that I, as the person managing and directing the staff in my department, was more likely to be replaced by the next wave of technological advancement than my employees.  Writing the story was my way of putting it into perspective and coping with this realization.  While writing the story, I remember thinking that the creative act of putting together experience with an imagined future and coming up with a piece of (what I hoped was) entertainment was something a robot or a computer program, no matter how foreseeably sophisticated, would not be able to do.  
This week, I have been given reasons to believe that I was wrong.  
I can blame National Public Radio for this.  I listen to NPR in the morning while getting ready for work.  This week's schedule had several stories that pointed toward the world of Robot Boss.  
The first of which, and the one that hit closest to home, was a story from Planet Money: An NPR Reporter Raced a Machine to Write a News Story.  Who Won?
The article was about a company called Automated Insights, and a program they created called WordSmith.  WordSmith takes information given to it to write simple, two or three paragraph news stories.  These stories have been in fields like sports reporting and financial news, areas which are more "programmable" than others.  WordSmith's articles appear on Yahoo! and Forbes, and are distributed via Associated Press.  Planet Money wanted to have a John Henry style contest, or perhaps I should call it a Watson on Jeopardy contest, to see who could write the better story based on the most recent financial report for the Denny's restaurant chain.  
To summarize, the human writer finished his story in 7 1/2 minutes.  The computer finished its story in two.  Reading the two, I agree that the human written story has more style.  The human writer also tried to put the facts in context, explaining why the sales figures were what they were.  What isn't obvious from the stories themselves is that WordSmith's voice, the style the human writer put into his word choice, is programmable.  The program can be taught to be more stylish.  And, more important from the standpoint of a news site hungry for copy, in the time it took the human writer to finish his report, WordSmith can work on 9,000+ similar articles at the same time.  
There was another story about a digital system encroaching on the creative realm previously dominated by humans.  Iamus is a computer program that writes music.  So far, all of its compositions have been in the field of modern classical music.  In 2012, Iamus had one of its symphonies performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.  
The pieces has been described as "musically interesting" by reviewers and music critics.  I am hoping that's a damnation by faint praise.  I did go on to YouTube to listen to one six minute piece by the same program, written before the symphony.  I didn't care for it much.  Then again, I'm not a big fan of contemporary classic music.  Beethoven is the mark I use to compare composers, and Iamus doesn't have the ability to shine his piano keys in my opinion (a limitation due to the fact his computer has no arms, for one).  
But it did remind me of another computerized effort in music called DarwinTunes.  Billed as a game, DarwinTunes creates music through the power of evolution.  A tune based on a random string of notes is generated.  People listen to it.  They decide if they like it or not, and which parts they like or don't like.  The program behind DarwinTunes takes that input and rewrites the tune.  This is presented to the "players," who give more feedback, and the cycle continues.  
The results can be fun.  Toe-tapping.  My toes did in fact tap to some of the samples I've listened to, along with some shoulder-swaying and head-bobbing.  It doesn't rise to the level of Lennon & McCartney, but it does show how a human with little skill or experience could assist a digital creator come up with something that could move people, or at least be pleasing and entertaining.  
This leads me, though, to questions about society's future.  Another radio program, Fresh Air (damn you, NPR!) had an interview with Martin Ford, the author of a book entitled "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future."  
A silicon valley executive, Ford speculates on what will happen when educated, "white collar" workers can no longer find jobs because the robots and the AIs we've created no longer need them.  One of his opinions, put forth in his interview, is that automation in business is one of the reasons behind the wealth disparity that has been in the news in recent years. 
This was something I thought about while writing Robot Boss.  How will people survive if they don't have work?  In the story, I came up with what I called a "fleshy economy."  An underground economy of barter and trade, or using some sort of electronic currency like bit-coin, where people sell food grown in urban farms, or provide DIY services for other people to earn what they need to get food, a place to sleep, etc..  In the world of Robot Boss, no one expects to have a job for very long.  They'll work long enough to get "real money" and then convert it to the currency of the fleshy economy to live on.  
I didn't go into very much detail about the fleshy economy in my story.  Just enough to provide a background for the story itself.  I was, and still am, interested in what this economy might be like.  Even without listening to the Martin Ford interview on Fresh Air, I could see an inherent contradiction in this trend toward greater automation.  If no one has a job, and the money to pay for things from such a job, who'll buy all the goods and services these robotic manufacturers and service providers are making and providing?  
I've written a seed of a sequel to Robot Boss, one written from the perspective of the manager that was replaced by the AI unit featured in the story.  It's sitting on the hard drive of my computer waiting for me to finish it.  I've joked to myself that I should just let my computer finish it. 
Hmm...  Upon further consideration, I think I'll find a way to finish it myself.  Soon.  


Post a Comment

<< Home