Author : Simon Petrie

There’d been big changes at Dave’s workplace.

Dave, 43, had been offered retirement, but he’d opted to stay employed in the burgeoning industry that he, as a roboticist, had helped initiate.

The society-wide introduction of working robots (more pedantically ICs, ‘intelligent constructs’) had been the past century’s dream, finally brought to fruition. And yet …

And yet. Midlife crisis, or something more? He didn’t know.

His reverie was interrupted by a tone in his earpiece.

“Completed on that level yet, Dave?” Hal’s clipped, precise tones, perfectly modulated.

“No, still stuck on the third unit. Shouldn’t be too much longer. Don’t think the rest pose any major problems.”

“Don’t forget those units on the next level. They need attention too.”

“I’ll get there, Hal, don’t sweat. Job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.”

Don’t sweat. Hah. That was a good one. All the same, Dave did take perverse pleasure in the point: there remained some tasks beyond any IC’s abilities.

He finished up, reached the foyer. Several lifts awaited. Time was, Dave had ridden these lifts daily, twelve floors, to his office. These days, he only ever went one floor up. The lifts didn’t see much use any more.

They should have seen, ten years back, where automation led. The first domestic-grade ICs were already able to oust FIDE’s reigning chess champion while still not performing adequately on tasks such as the vacuuming of a shagpile rug. Their handling of basic household chores had improved in subsequent models. Nonetheless, it remained apparent the ICs’ real strengths lay elsewhere, in realms of symbolic logic, abstract concepts, and ordered environments: money; justice; administration; science, technology, mathematics; the factory floor; the shopping centre.

Chaos was their weakness. A disordered environment posed an insurmountable challenge to even the new top-of-the-line ICs with millimolar memory capacity and massively parallel quantum architecture. In some circumstances and for some applications — military, police, rescue, mining — there were ways around this, through the use of human-piloted semi-IC proxies for dangerous and difficult tasks. Many chaotic tasks remained, though, for which this was not cost-effective; perhaps the future would change that.

Funny, Dave thought. The very tasks people had always thought tailormade for robotic intervention were the ones at which ICs weren’t any good.

Hal called again, of course, as he did at precise fifteen-minute intervals whenever Dave was behind schedule. “Completed on that level yet, Dave?”

“Ground level? Yeah, sure, just starting on the first floor units.” He entered the first booth, got to work with bleach and disinfectant, and soon had the entire unit sparkling. The next cubicle was worse: it looked like the S-bend was blocked, he’d have to get his hands dirty to clear it.

Not too complicated a task, in reality; you’d think an IC could master it, if it chose.

But it was a paycheck, and wasn’t that still worth it?

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