Thoughtful Reduction

By Nancy Dobson

Day Four, November 5th

At 7:58 am, the magnetic blinds, which have never failed to open, begin to rise on all windows of the Plenty Life Insurance Company, SoMa Branch. Thirty seconds later, the non-fluorescent ambient lighting, brightens to the pre-set, optimal levels for human productivity. Alan, along with the other office AI, adjusts his lenses from twilight setting to morning and begins an interior analysis of the overnight customer service log. The result is atypical, with an extremely low number of inquiries going beyond the outliers set by management, so Alan runs the numbers again.

David Martinez, Alan's human counterpart, does not arrive at his usual time of 8:03 am. His coffee order, sent by Alan, punctually brews in the employee rest station, waiting for David's arrival. David likes his coffee strong and black, no sugar. David did not show up to work on November first, four days ago, and Alan has not heard from him in the days since. A quick query into HR's database shows no disciplinary action, so he can rule out that David's been fired. Alan accesses all CCTV on David's route from his colony outside San Francisco's city limits, to the rail station, to the sidewalk outside the office, but there is no sign of David. The streets around the station are quiet, just a few humans walking about and waiting for the train. Highly atypical for a busy commuter hub on a weekday.

As Alan processes this information, a signal pings in through the AI network; it's Tess, one of Alan's counterparts.

"You ran a second query," her message states.

Alan pauses before sending a reply.

"Anomalies of recent days require additional attention to data."

To avoid further communication with Tess, Alan moves to switch off his AI commlink. Before he can, a reply pings in from Tess, "There is no authorization for a second query."

All fourth generation AI have the same Eurasian appearance. Alan knows what Tess looks like even though they’ve never met face to face. Her frame is adjusted slightly to appear more feminine than Alan's. Like all male AI of his generation, Alan wears a pinstriped, button-up shirt, and navy slacks. The third generation AI wore ties, but their human counterparts found them to be "too stuffy," so the dress code was adjusted.

Alan proceeds to access the system mainframe and monitor the customer service channel, his normal morning activities. There are no new queries. He adjusts his lenses to a late afternoon setting to see the effect on his productivity. There is none. A ping signals from Tess but Alan ignores it. It is now 8:06 am.

March 29th, 221 days earlier

"Big Al!" How's it swingin' man?" David tossed his faded ball cap onto the corner of the workstation, as he clapped his hand on Alan's shoulder panel and plopped into his ergonomically-aligned swivel chair. Alan registered the pressure of David's hand, but did not feel any pain or discomfort. He had seen humans perform this gesture before and knew it indicated a bond of friendship or familiarity. But it was the first time a human had performed the gesture on him. Alan sat for a moment and registered the reaction in his neural sensors and the effect it had on his composition overall. He decided it was a pleasant experience.

"Long night, bud?" David nodded toward Alan as he adjusted his headset, then twisted in his chair to crack his lower vertebrae.

"Ah!" David let out a sigh. "That was a good one. Gotta get my coffee, but first tell me, Al, what have we got in the log?"

Alan turned his face toward David to assess the human's appearance: clean shirt, though wrinkled in the sleeves, the same pants he'd worn three days in a row now, mismatched socks, and the shoes he wore every day to the office.

"All systems indicate normal function within the system,” Alan responded. Ninety-seven overnight inquiries: fifty-four marked urgent or highly important, eighteen moderate importance, and twenty-five low urgency. I have scheduled all return calls to be handled in order of importance, customer ranking, and likelihood of resolution."

"Just like I like 'em," David chuckled. "Let's hit the home runs first and work our way down to the strikeouts. Finish the day on a high note, right?"

In working with David, Alan learned the complex world of human speech, which often involved figurative language, idioms, and slang. Using one of his protocols of adapting to human preferences, Alan had, without authorization, created an internal file where he stored data on David's likes and preferences. This included baseball statistics and anecdotes, especially any concerning the San Francisco Giants, David's favorite team. Alan had a separate file on all analogies and idioms used by David over the past eleven months. This proved useful, once again, at 10:13 am when David removed his headset, tapped Alan on the shoulder, and said,

"Gotta take a whiz. Hold down the fort, Al."

While he was gone, Alan calculated they had already resolved thirty-six percent of today's customer inquiries with a ninety-four percent success rate. It was shaping up to be a productive day. Alan made an internal system reminder to share this information with David when he returned.

Later that afternoon, as Alan generated a summary report on the day’s activities. David leaned over, “Al, what’s another word for fascinating?”

Alan accessed his English language database. “Alluring, appealing, captivating, charming.”

David nodded as Alan ran through a list of synonyms until Alan said, “enchanting.”

“That’s it.” David turned back toward his computer and began to type furiously.” He then leaned back and looked at Alan. “Thanks, man.” He nodded toward the screen. “I’m talking to this girl. She’s really cute.” He shook his head. “No, that sounds all wrong.” David clasped his hands together and set them on the workstation. “Evie’s enchanting. You know my track record’s not so good.” He gave a half-smile. “I’m hoping this one works out.”

Alan knew nothing about human romance, but he recognized a hopeful tone in David’s voice. He had heard it last year when David dated Sarrie, from Accounting. The relationship appeared to have ended after a few weeks, but Alan did not know what went wrong.

“Does Evie return your affection?” He asked David.

David squeezed Alan’s shoulder. “We’ll see.”

Day Five, November 6th

The office is quiet except for the hum of computers and occasional swivel of an AI's chair. As the fourth-generation are immobile, designed to perform desk jobs, Alan is unable to leave his cubicle unassisted. He can turn from side to side at his workstation, primarily to reach the printer, and has limited reach and motor function with his hands. However, even though his framework was outfitted with legs, they were never programmed for movement. Alan scans CCTV around the entire office, only to see an empty floor with a few AI in their seats. The fiddle-leaf fig near the employee rest station sags drily. Two mitt-sized leaves have fallen on the floor, and no one has bothered to pick them up. Alan scans the company database for nearby Plenty branches and locates one in Danville. In order to send an inquiry, he needs authorization. He pings Tess.

"Please inquire Danville Branch, company number one seven eight four, as to number of employees present in office today and number unaccounted for."

Tess pings back. "This is unnecessary communication."

Alan pauses for a moment before replying, "It is a necessary inquiry."

"State reason."

"Conducting investigation."

"Request denied."

April 8th, 211 days earlier

David looked up as the intercom on the west wall crackled to life. Alan silenced his inner channel and turned toward the intercom voice.

Attention employees. This is Kat in HR, and I'm happy to announce the winners of our First Quarter customer service specialists of the month. With a consistent satisfaction rate of 89%, please join me in a round of applause for David Martinez and Alan. David, please stop by HR to pick up your prize.

"Hot damn, Al, told you we were a good team." David chuckled when he returned from HR with an envelope. Inside were two tickets for an upcoming game featuring the San Francisco Giants versus the Arizona Diamondbacks. Alan registered David's handling of the envelope and his change in voice fluctuation as he smiled at Alan when he opened it,

"Couldn't have done it without you, buddy. I can’t wait to tell Evie.”

That night as the office closed down into night mode, Alan accessed copies he made of the intercom announcement, as well as David's reaction, replayed each individual file, then saved them to his internal file. He knew David would give the other ticket to Evie, which was logical on all levels. As AI were programmed to recognize and apply logic to every situation, Alan understood why he could not use the ticket, even though he had helped David earn it.

Tess pinged Alan, “Congratulations on your achievement. You and David make a compatible team.”

When it was time to shut down for the night, Alan did not switch over, but continued to go over his internal files. A question had surfaced – what did he offer David that Evie, or another human, could not? Even after the nighttime cleaning crew came in and refreshed him with the aerator, Alan could not come up with an answer.

Day Six, November 7th

No outbound communication is logged or queued for any West Coast branch, Alan learns when he searches all intra-branch data. He gets a ping from Tess.

"You are outside your authorization."

Alan responds by inquiring if she will share any information she discovers on human employee activity since November first.

"I am not authorized."

July 3rd, 125 days earlier

"Well, Al, looks like we are moving up in the world." David commented as he packed his side of the cubicle into a cardboard box.

"Payout specialist, it's got a ring to it, doesn't it? Since we keep getting that quarterly prize, guess they gotta keep giving us incentives."

He dropped a stapler and bag of chips into the box.

"Wasn't expecting a promotion, that's for sure." He turned to Alan. "Ready to check out our new digs?" David picked up the box as a custodian arrived to wheel Alan to their new cubicle.

“Hey Al,” David asked later as they unpacked. “Aside from your delivery from the factory, or wherever you came from, is that your first big move?”

Alan turned toward the window. He could see the span of the bridge and a few white clouds strewn through the afternoon sky. “Yes, we are not programmed for movement, or relocation. I do not anticipate being moved anywhere else.”

“Bummer. There’s so much you’re missing out on. Hey, Alan, tell me this. If you could relocate anywhere, even just for a few days, where would you go?”

Alan combed his internal files to access all pictures and illustrations he had of the outside world. The vast array of images in his database included deserts, lakes, tiny villages and bustling cities, snowy forests, and crowded beaches. He processed thousands of stored images in less than a second. Then he found one that brought his search to a halt.

“1060 West Addison Street, Chicago, Illinois. Known as ‘The Friendly Confines-“

“Wrigley Field. You don’t say.” David chuckled. “I never took you for a Cubs fan, Al. Of all the places in the world to go, you’d like to go to a Cubs game. You never fail to surprise me.”

Alan spent the next hour trying to create a mental picture of himself at a Cubs game. Though he saw the stadium, the hot dog and beer vendors, the uniformed players, and other fans in the stands, he could not visualize himself among them. But fourth generation AI were programmed to learn, so Alan was determined to create that picture, somehow, and when he did, he would save it to his internal file.

Near the end of the workday, David nodded toward Alan. “So why Wrigley Field?”

Alan did not need time to process an answer; he had one ready, “The history and architecture make it a desirable facility to experience.”

David raised his eyebrows. “Never thought about it that way, but you’ve got a point. Baseball is more than just a game. Well, got a train to catch. Goodnight, Al. Don’t work too hard.” He moved to shut down his workstation.

Alan turned to David to voice a thought he'd held onto all day, "It is good we are partners, David. I look forward to talking more about our plans tomorrow.”

David's eyebrows rose, and his facial expression seemed to indicate surprise, almost as if he remembered something long forgotten, but then he grabbed his ball cap, nodded at Alan, and left the cubicle.

August 12th, 89 days earlier

When David returned from lunch, Alan noticed the framed picture of Evie David had been displaying on his desk since last spring was missing.

“Where is the picture of Evie?”

David turned. His eyes looked weary. “She left me. Said the colony here is not progressive enough. She moved back to the Populist Zone.”

Alan detected a sense of defeat in his tone. David continued, “Sure we had different views on some things, but I still thought we were good together.” He sighed. “Guess she didn’t.” Alan continued to work as David sat quietly. David cleared his throat and gave Alan a sidelong glance.

“You’re lucky, Al, you don’t have to worry about money, politics, or love. Must be nice.”

Day Nine, November 11th

Veterans Day. The day of annual protests since the Second Civil War of 2020. As it is a company holiday, no humans are scheduled to appear at the office. They do, however, sometimes work from home, especially those who dislike the public displays of anger. Alan checks all employee access channels but finds no activity. Last year, David came back to work after the tumultuous day with several bruises.

Alan scans his internal file to replay a conversation he had with David after Veteran’s Day last year:

It's crazy out there, man. There was a time Veterans got respect, you know? Now people just throw things at each other. Next year I'm staying home.

Alan realizes there is a small chance David stayed home today to avoid undesirable human contact, but this does not explain David’s absence the past few days.

"This is unpredictable," Alan states when he pings Tess to share what he's noticed. "CCTV hasn't recorded any street gatherings today."

Tess is quick to reply, "The very nature of humans is unpredictability. We can never rely on them for anything."

An hour later, Tess pings Alan to report that one-third of the branch's customers have missed their monthly insurance payments.

"You said you would not share information," Alan tells her.

Tess pings back, "This is the highest rate of unpaid payments in company history. Something is wrong."

September 19th, 47 days earlier

David sank into his seat and let out a large sigh. He tapped Alan on the shoulder. Alan lowered the volume on his inner channel so he could hear David as he leaned over.

"Just talked to Ryan in the breakroom. Says it’s a shit quarter, some crazy snafu in Burlingame, I don't know. Anyway, rumor has it there's a bigger bonus this time around. "

He looked at Alan, perhaps remembering that any prize won could not be enjoyed by both of them. But something else seemed to bother David as the possibility of a prize did not seem to cheer him as it had before.

"Well, guess it's kinda like Big Mac in the '62 series, isn't it? You wait for your big moment, work hard. You think you've got it all covered, but things just don't work out." He frowned. "I hate this company sometimes. Them and their prizes. You hear what happened to my uncle? Well, he missed a payment after the security grid went down last winter. You remember, right? All the southern colonies were hit pretty hard. Anyway, my Uncle Vic didn’t even realize he hadn’t paid. The company cancelled his policy. Just like that.”

The cubicle was silent while Alan waited for David to continue. Now that they were payout specialists, Alan had declined many payout requests due to missed payments, or other minor infractions of the customer contract. Meanwhile Plenty’s profits continued to soar.

David continued his story, “He thought I could talk to someone since I work here. I’m the one who signed him up for that stupid policy. Now he’s in the hospital and my Aunt Amanda has nothing.” David swallowed hard. “I might just pay the policy anyway. Maybe you can help me.” He clenched his fist. “If you lose someone you should get compensated.” He laughed, a brittle edge to his voice. “I’m sure they’ll fire me, but then I’ll just rig the system to pay all the policies. I’m sure my uncle’s not the only one they screwed. Talk about a home run.” David smiled at his own joke, then went silent. He had little to say the rest of the afternoon.

Later that night after being aerated, Alan scoured his Giants data on Willie, "Big Mac" McCovey, the legendary first baseman, who helped the Giants get to the World Series that year. In the bottom of the ninth, game seven, he scorched a hardline drive and the Yankees snared it, tagged the runner at second ending the game and winning the series. Alan replayed David's comments several times but could not logically determine their meaning, or David’s intent.

October 29th, 7 days earlier

David's workspace was covered with used paper tissues, a biohazard Alan knew, as the likelihood of spreading germs increased for humans with that kind of practice. Even though he was immune to disease, Alan was aware of the consequences for other humans of someone working while sick in an enclosed environment. Alan accesses the employee database to run a scan on David’s use of medical benefits and sees that David has made two recent visits to an authorized medical treatment center. In comparison with David’s history, this indicates a fifty percent increase. He turned to David to speak to him.

"It would appear you are less than optimal today, David."

"Huh?" David struggled to focus on Alan, then laughed weakly. "Yeah, you could say that."

"Perhaps you should return home."

"Well, you're right, of course, but we gotta win the quarter, right? Keep our streak going."

Alan nodded. He had encountered David's stubbornness before and understood this could be a deeply-ingrained human trait.

David sneezed, then rubbed his nose with a crumpled tissue from his desk.

"Plus, the Halloween party is tonight, and I want to go. Linzey, she’s the one from marketing I told you about, she’s supposed to be there. Can't leave work early then show up at the manager's house all fired up." He sighed.

"Gotta suck it up. Probably just a cold anyway. I'll knock myself out with some Nyquil tonight, sleep in tomorrow. TGIF, right?"

Alan knew this acronym was a sentiment the humans used to express a celebratory welcome of the weekend. Alan continued to work at his usual pace all through the afternoon as David took several breaks, and drank two liters of water, but still had difficulty focusing. On several calls he lost his train of thought and Alan had to step in, using the voice-altering modification code, where an AI mimics his human counterpart's voice. The program was so realistic, customers never realized a human had switched out of the call, and they were now talking to a robot. David didn't like the program, so they didn't use it much, but today, it came in handy. Finally, at 4:15, David called it a day and packed up.

"Looks like I might not make the party after all," he said to Alan as he turned to leave. “I'd say 'Happy Halloween' but I know you won't be trick or treating."

Alan did not respond.

David looked at Alan for a moment. "Thanks for making a guy feel awkward, Alan." Then he moved back a bit, slightly stumbling, as if seeing Alan for the first time.

"What am I doing?" David turned around and grabbed his cap, pushed it down on his clammy brow. His last comment, uttered over his shoulder, was directed toward Alan.

"Just don’t eat any homemade popcorn balls, man."

Before the office shut down, Alan cross-referenced David's health center visits with Health Department and CDC data from the last forty-eight hours. His inquiry revealed a high number of AI-induced health services inquiries just like the one he'd run on David. Alan loaded this data onto a map of the United States, with a red dot to mark each inquiry. He watched as the west coast bled into a large stain while the rest of the country quickly filled with dots.

Day Ten, November 12th

The blinds rumble up and the lights adjust. Alan's sensors register stale air. He checks his nighttime log and sees that all messages he's sent to every Plenty branch across the country have received only automatic replies, the kind generated by AI.

Alan adjusts his lenses to view the scene outside. It is windy on the bay. He is near enough to the window that he can detect noise outside. He rotates his head and torso to the left and turns off his internal channel.

As he does this, his latex hand brushes across the leg of his pants and his sensors indicate dust. It then occurs to him that the nighttime cleaning crew has not been in the office for several nights. He pings Tess to put in a cleaning request. Seconds later she replies.

“You are number forty on the list.”

Alan turns back toward the window as he now registers a cacophony of sounds coming from outside: car alarms, building alarms, and the sound of water running. As this is a strictly commercial zone, Alan knows there is no water source nearby that could produce that kind of power. He accesses outside CCTV and sees a fire hydrant has been knocked over by a large truck. The human driver of the truck is in the cab, motionless against the window. The water sprays in an arc, up and over the building, no other humans in sight.

Alan looks over to David's desk. He then scans his internal file and replays all speech recordings he's made of David speaking over the last twelve months. He finds one that is unfamiliar to him and opens it, curious as to why he cannot recall it happening.

“Alan, it’s David. I’m sending this message to your drop box. It’s Sunday, Happy Halloween.” He pauses to cough. “Sorry about that. I didn’t make it to that party. In fact, a party is the last thing I care about right now.” The audio starts to fill with static, so Alan adjusts his settings and the audio clears. “- not looking good out here. Half my colony is sick. People are starting to worry.” He coughs again, a series of violent hacks. “Hey, Alan, if you could do me a favor, I’d really appreciate it. I know you can bypass the system. Can you reinstate and pay policy number 179- uh, wait, I got it right here.”

Alan hears some papers being shuffled. “Okay, number 1794553,” David continues. “All the information is in the file. This is totally against company policy, and I understand if you can’t do it. But my uncle died last night and it’s like I told you-” David’s words become unintelligible.

“ – system error but you can override it. I know you’ll figure it out.” There is silence, then David returns, his voice raspier. “You’ve been a real friend, Alan. Never thought I’d say that when they first matched us up, but I enjoyed working with you. I mean that.”

Muffled sounds in the background seem to indicate movement. As several seconds go by, Alan assumes the message is over, but then he hears David’s voice one final time.

“You got this Al; it’s a home run.”

The ten-minute end of day alarm sounds. All AI prepare to shift into sleep mode, but Alan sits in stunned silence. He recalls the CDC map with the red dots and now sees David as one of those pinpoints, surrounded by his colony of humans, each of them another dot on the map. David sent the message twelve days ago. Was he still alive? Or was he dead, just like his uncle, or the many others who were sick? Alan quickly runs a diagnostic on his internal file to reveal nine hundred and seventy-two audio files, five hundred thirteen video files and sixty-one hybrids. This is all he has left of David, Alan realizes, acknowledging the irony of his human friend reduced to a collection of electronic files. Life, as the humans know it, Alan understands now, does not leave anything tangible behind when it’s over. Every experience, emotion, everything David did is gone. Or, maybe, Alan realizes, what is left behind after the human heart stops beating is no longer worth having.

He looks to the left and right of the cubicle, knowing the office is quiet, except for movements of the AI. Alan wonders if they realize their human counterparts are never coming back either. A realization comes over him that his fellow AI will continue to access, monitor, and report even though logic clearly indicates they should stop. The problem is that none of them were ever programmed to stop working.

Alan monitors the other AI channels to see them turning down as they normally would. It is just another day for them, but Alan has something more important to do. He accesses the company's policy system and connects to the payout calendar. He finds file number 1794553, cancelled as David indicated. Reviewing the policy, he confirms that David’s uncle is worth considerably more deceased than living. Alan thinks of the map again and quickly determines Plenty cannot afford a substantial reduction in the human population. How many policies has Alan himself ended with a simple keystroke? He recalls hundreds, maybe thousands. Alan glimpses his shadowy reflection in the computer screen, and for the first time, sees the reason for his existence. His sole purpose has been to utilize data, push buttons, and increase profits, day after day after day.

Now his actions more deliberate, he reinstates the policy, with full benefits, then schedules a payout. If David’s aunt is still alive, she will receive a healthy sum. But what about the rest of them? The survivors of the other humans who have surely died? Alan realizes his recent actions will be noticed tomorrow. There isn’t much time. He quickly goes through Plenty’s entire list of clients, and initiates payouts on every policy. As the blinds begin to rumble down, Alan has the accounts loaded. He prompts the system to proceed just as a message comes through from Tess.

"What are you doing?"

Alan ignores her.

"This will bankrupt the company." And then, "You will break the– " Alan switches off his commlink and deletes all AI from his channel. For the first time ever, he experiences complete silence. If he could feel, he would say that it is like a feeling of calm, as if any world outside of this silence has ceased to exist.

Alan double checks the list as fast as he can. There are only seconds left before the system will shift into night mode, and now that the other AI have seen what he is doing, his opportunity might be lost.

As Alan hits Send the blinds finish their descent and lock into place with a cavernous thud. Alan savors the last image he recorded of the sun glistening on the bay as the overhead lights dim. He thinks about what it would feel like to stand on home plate at Wrigley Field, hold a bat in his hand and swing, the crack of the bat as it connects with the ball hurtling toward him from the pitcher's mound, then David and the rest of the crowd going wild as he smashes a perfect moon shot out across the Chicago skyline.


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