February 20, 2018

It was 5:06 am on a foggy morning when the autocab dropped me off at the job site. I remember the time because I got to see the cargo drone drop off the shipping container filled with the day’s supplies. Exactly the right amount of supplies. No more, no less.

Occasionally the algorithm would mess up and not fully anticipate work-halting weather or unique events like a family emergency. But for the most part, the algorithm can predict the scope of a day’s work within a couple man-hours. Much better than a human. Heck, it seems like it knows you’re sick even before you do.

The cargo drone’s circuitry buzzed as it released the container and fired up its giant quadcopter blades. Unladen, it sprung into the air like a grasshopper but only for a brief minute as it pounced down on yesterday’s container grabbing it in its talons. Its massive motors now fully engaged, kicking up earth and dust, it slowly lifted the container filled with yesterday’s broken concrete and refuse collected by the sitebots the night before.

I work for a rehab corp. You see, since the autocar, the demand for parking spaces has rapidly declined. We convert old parking garages into usable spaces: offices, luxury condos, nightclubs, all that sort of downtown stuff.

As far as work goes, it’s pretty alright. There’s some job security there. Every parking garage is just different enough it’s cost prohibitive to build custom bots for rehabbing. AI has determined humans are a more cost-effective labor source. And there are some intangible benefits: turning greasy, smog-filled dungeons into livable spaces feels like you’re doing some good in the world.

At first, automakers assumed autonomous electric vehicles would be the next big consumer item. But that fad only lasted about a decade. Autocab startups anticipated the next wave. No driver to pay was too good an incentive and investors went crazy. Competition between autocab startups drove the cost down to almost zero. People figured this out and traded their personal vehicles for ride-hailing apps instead.

Life is better now for commuters. As more autocars came online and connected to the shared metrolink protocols, cars could communicate with each other like connectables. That maximizes efficiency and nearly eliminates the need for stop lights. Vehicular fatalities are at pre-industrial levels.

Reliance on autocabs doubles this efficiency too. Fewer cars on the road mean fewer roads are necessary. Some cities are converting entire arteries and old freeways into affordable housing for the service class.

Fewer cars also mean higher speeds, so you can move further out of town, get a bigger house with some land but your commute isn’t dramatically longer. But most folks I know rehab their unneeded garages into a second living room and plant gardens where their driveways used to be.

Life and society are pretty good in that regard. Less commute means you get a bit more free time in your day to chase hobbies or go to the bar. Bar conversations are a little more depressing, however. Instead of the old “Where do you work?” get-to-know-you dance, you’re stuck answering “What did you do before the singularity?” The question itself originated as a joke that came from some dumb TV show, but struck a chord and became a meme of sorts. It’s an ironic acknowledgment of the boat we’re all in, but it gets a little bit sadder each time you have to answer.

I think the meme got popular because no one likes to talk about what they do anymore. Take me for instance. Back in the day, I was a foreman for a mid-sized construction company. I oversaw forty or fifty people on a job site. I was at the top of my pay grade and looked up to. To be that far along in my career, it‘s demoralizing and emasculating to tell people I’m a Mammoth Herder now.

I thought my job was safe, that I added value. Then AI figured out more efficient project management techniques and could generate compelling instructional vods, short 3D augmented reality animations that play in our displays. The animations are simple, sometimes funny, and remind me of those instruction booklets that came with that furniture you wrench together. The vods needed for the day start uploading to the displays as soon as the container hits the ground.

About 4 years ago, AI determined the optimal construction crew should be broken up into groups of two seniors and four juniors. This made the foreman role a bit redundant. Most foremen went back to labor but my file already showed that I was unable to lift a jack. A job site injury when I was young and dumb manifested in my later years with bad knees and elbows. So I got assigned to the walkers.

Walkers are an impressive last-mile shipping technology. Due to their size and the large wingspan, cargo drones can deliver the shipping containers to the nearest block. Walker technology then takes over and positions the container exactly where it’s supposed to go on the job site. It‘s based on old military tech.

Every morning I’m supposed to survey the site to make sure the sitebots did their job. Then I walk over to the freshly dropped container, shout “Up!”, and back away. A warning halo illuminates the ground as the under-mounted legs transform, twist, wrench, and begin to slowly lift the impossibly heavy load of the shipping container one meter off the ground. It’s my job to escort the walker.

We call this walker a “mammoth” because from a distance when standing its rusty metal shell looks like a giant prehistoric animal. Other types and sizes of walkers exist: pups which carry small suitcase-sized cargo like tools and instant deliveries, camels which carry large liquid cells, and cattle which carry methane, nitrogen, and other pressurized gasses.

Cattle are almost the size of real cattle so as a project to make them less brutalist and more friendly, a lot of local elementary schools partnered with fueling stations to paint them to look like actual cows. It’s pretty cute. Also makes it more fun when you get drunk with your buddies and try to tip ’em. They won’t fall over, but it’s cathartic to try.

Truth be told the walkers don’t need to be escorted. They could be easily be navmapped to where they need to be. In fact, they walk themselves back to the drop site after hours. But jobs like these came about as part of a federal initiative called “Humans@Work” to slow down hemorrhaging unemployment rates. Partnering with corporations and market research firms, the government developed the role of “Herder” so machines always seem as co-existing with humans. It’s supposed to help the machines seem more like useful farm animals rather than soul-less lumbering dinosaurs.

To which, I get their point. If you’ve ever stumbled upon hundreds of walkers autonomously resetting themselves after hours, it’s unsettling and creepy on foggy nights. So maybe I’m not so useless after all.

Creepy is also the reason they put faces on the mammoths. User experience researchers determined that each mammoth when activated should also have a rudimentary electronic face like a Japanese cartoon that blinks and cycles through a series of random emotions. It can even emote vague responses to questions. This minimum viable sense of life makes them seem less like monsters.

The gaudy lights didn’t stop there. Because these hulking beasts are the size of billboards, advertising companies figured out how to project display ads on the sides of each mammoth when raised. Construction companies always eager to make an extra buck saw this as a win-win.

I escorted the walker up the garage ramps to the 2nd level we were rehabbing that day. It lowered itself about a half-meter to make the clearance. Once at the P2 site I barked my next command:

“Sit.”

The sit routine takes a good half minute to execute. Again some researchers believed it was a better user experience to add an animation sequence to make the mammoth circle and wag its backend a bit to make it look like a puppy laying down. It would even emit a robotic bark when it completed its task. It was pointless and wasted time, but the billionaires and their gilded wives who owned the buildings loved to come to the job site and make them perform over and over and over. Borderline bot-abuse, but whatever pays the bills.

I made a critical mistake during the sit routine. The novelty of the routine is lost on me. I’ve seen it a thousand times so maybe I was bored, but I simply lost focus of what the mammoth was doing. I was standing inside the warning halo.

I felt the breath leave my body and my jaw snap instantly as I was caught by the whipping tail end of the mammoth. I fell to the ground and rolled in pain. Through blurred vision I vaguely saw the underside of the mammoth directly above me complete its first circle, then another…

I was unable to yell with detached jaw and no air in my lungs. If I could have yelled I could have stopped the animation cycle. All mechanoids were originally required by law to meet Access and Inclusion Act compliance so that the deaf and non-verbal could also operate the machines. But as time went on, big businesses and tech companies lobbied conservatives to repeal the ”overregulation” citing costs and legal fees. I remember briefly thinking I could have used those requirements.

Walkers also required sensors to always know the position of their herder. But due to the foggy weather interfering with the 3D cameras and a known firmware bug with under-mounted proximity sensors (hotfixed in the 14.0573.9873 patch later that day) there was no way to cancel the order.

The mammoth realizing its herder no longer had a pulse, pinged the authorities who arrived shortly thereafter. My coworkers learned of my passing at 7:52 am, the optimal time determined by the algorithm where all our employees could arrive simultaneously to the job site by autocab.

All job site accidents are issued an immediate postmortem called Machine Review. Machine Review is almost like an AI courtroom. It builds a forensic model from all the available data sensors and 3D job site footage. Using the model and mountains of historical workplace lawsuits the AI issues a liability judgment.

In fact, this judgment process finished a few minutes after the mammoth lost track of my heartbeat. It could have been delivered to my family before my body was even found, but again researchers found this was considered too insensitive and contributed to a bad user experience.

You can contest the postmortem, but most don’t out of embarrassment. Cases involving mechanoids tend to be high-profile, sensational news stories that put Man against Machine only to reveal the deceased doing something embarrassingly stupid or sexual at time of death. Families are smart to opt for the settlement instead.

I worry that my family and friends will somehow get copies of the video scene assembled by the postmortem. I worry about the gruesomeness, the sadness of death, and the effect that will have on my kids. But what I fear most is that they’ll see me do nothing. They’ll see me standing in the warning halo of the mammoth and do nothing as I get sideswiped. They’ll see me do nothing.

That’s the shame I bear.