Something for the weekend, sir? It was night after Christmas, but I felt all alone.
I had opted for the on-call rather than spending it at home.
Paid double to sit idly by, my colleagues said:
No one will be working late this Christmas Day.
The office is pretty much empty – it makes you laugh!
(This is a Boxing Day news feed with a small staff.)
Not a creature moved, not even a mouse.
Then the night assistance phone started beeping.
“Ah fucking shitty house.”
It’s Christmas 2031 and things have changed a lot in the newspaper world. For starters, it’s been almost a decade since we abandoned the paper element. Never mind that the paper had then become the cheapest and – thanks to Scandinavian forest regulations (when you cut down a tree, you have to plant two new ones) – the most environmentally friendly publication medium.
The real problem had been rising electricity bills to run printing presses and the huge expense of delivering physical copies across the country, not to mention unloading piles of copies on planes.
It was much cheaper for us to pass the costs on to the readers, who not only paid us their digital news subscription, but also had to buy their own devices needed to read it and pay their own electricity bills, recharging their tablets. and smartphones every night via the ecological wonders of nuclear power plants.
One thing has not changed: Brits generally don’t want to read newspapers on Christmas Day. That’s why we don’t publish on December 25th. It has nothing to do with whether it is a holiday or a religious thing; it certainly has nothing to do with the granting of leave to staff.
Think about it: most of the morning newspaper content is produced the day before. In order not to publish on Christmas Day, we take Christmas Eve off. But since UK readers love to read the papers on Boxing Day, that means everyone is on deck the day before, which is Christmas Day itself.
That said, it’s now almost midnight on December 25, 2031 and tomorrow morning’s edition is already over. There are only a handful of employees left to broadcast articles from international news agencies in our live stream all night long. Easy choices for a production support corps like me for double the time and overtime increase on their modest income! There is little chance anyone will need any support as there are so few staff tonight.
Of course, when I say “personal” I mean AIs.
Even in 2021, you could see how things were going. Sports stories were already written by robot: any randomizer fed from a database of sports snapshots can write a fairly effective report on a football match. It is not a big request.
Come to think of it, in hindsight, Christmas 2021 could have started the ball rolling. I had joined a Zoom call with the night production crew and as we waited for the others to arrive, the production manager absently began to hum a popular Christmas song:
“He knows when you sleep,” she mumbled good-naturedly. “He knows when you’re awaaaake…”
“Truly?” I intervened. “My Fitbit does it too.”
She was silent for a few moments, frowning slightly. With less enthusiasm, she continued this musical whisper:
“He knows when you’re bad or good …”
“So Santa Claus is also artificial intelligence?” I retorted.
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. It is a medical condition known as Tourette Anum Captiosus. But rather than show irritation, the production manager fell silent again and was lost in her own thoughts for the rest of the meeting.
Over the next few years, the production manager replaced 90% of her staff with robots, and the newspaper’s editor did the same with journalists.
You would think I would be remiss if I had put the idea in their head 10 Christmases ago. Not at all. What annoys me is that I have never been paid finder’s fees.
My colleagues in customer service are happy with this turn of events. There’s still a lot of work to do for them – all the more so, in fact, as the complexity of AI systems and the interfaces between them require constant attention. Gone are the days when you could just glance at the load balancing status every now and then while waiting for the next user to register a call. In fact, that’s what they enjoy the most – not getting those tedious calls to help users find out that they haven’t plugged their mouse back in after charging their phone.
Which brings me back to the present. I’m on my own in customer support tonight as systems, when not taking care of themselves, can be monitored and tampered with from a distance by coworkers huddled in their beds. Me, I only came out of retirement because I’m the only living servant willing to volunteer for the in-person role in front of the clients for the handful of humans who still work alongside the robots.
Woe to any human who calls the helpline tonight: they’ve got me.
My crotch glows in the dark. In 2031, incoming messages do not ring or vibrate your smartphone; they light up your clothes. (Another big idea of mine turned into a smash hit without pay. Curses.)
Double tapping on my bullshit I read that the user asking for help is not one of the humans. It’s one of the robots.
Obviously, these are not “Robbie-the” contraptions walking, talking, in RUR, but AI existing in software somewhere in cloud data centers. I think. Not sure. Anyway, if they can write topical articles, they can definitely interact with me through conventional language. One of those AIs writing the log alerted me to a problem with one of its interfaces. Can I go downstairs and check?
Fearing that this call might be a bit beyond me, because I’m about as likely to rewrite a Perl script to interface two systems as I am having sex with a goldfish using Microsoft Office, I walk down the stairs. In the newsroom, there are lots of buzzing cabinets and flashing LEDs, as well as a few desks. One of them has a man slumped over it. He is the designated human operator tonight.
On one side of the collapsed reporter is a nearly empty Haig bottle. Phew, I thought, thank God he hadn’t drunk it all!
On the other side is Haig’s empty bottle that he had already completed. Ah.
On the screen in front of it, a window opens with a message from the AI to me: “Thanks for coming down. My interface has crashed. Can you see what the problem is? We are on schedule. “
Its interface is the very experienced but currently snoring reporter, sound asleep and unresponsive to shoulder shaking, ear beating or shouting “Wake up, sleeping bastard”.
He also smiles in his sleep, which I guess means he’ll survive this. At least he’ll have fingerprints on his right cheek for days after that, so there.
The point is, he’s supposed to oversee the copy of text served by AIs and pick where they might go in the next edit, or figure out the order in which they should be added to the live stream overnight. AIs can’t do it without it because that’s how we set up the workflow.
A sharp kick to the thick of her already vast buttocks does the trick. He wakes up asleep and gets up. I start to push his powerful ass with the tip of my Docs to coax him towards the toilet, where he throws up most of the whiskey in the trash can, pees in the sink and takes a sip of the water from the latrine.
Refreshed, he returns to his office of power: one man to control the insane machines. And he’s tearing up the stories again.
By the time I returned to my own upstairs office, the AI updated the log to say it has been satisfactorily resolved and can be closed. I only need to complete the report with a summary of the incident.
The computer called me to tell me that the user was down. Parameters started, cleaned and updated. User is now functioning properly but recommends replacement.
Merry Christmas. I predict a long winter to come.
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance tech enthusiast, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. When he doesn’t predict the near future, he works hard to bring about his own eventual obsolescence by continuing to work in this thankless industry. Pass me that whiskey, will you? More than Auto-save is for wimps and @alidabbs.