Coworkers

by David Brown

It was board meeting time again. Jordan dreaded each one more than the last. He wondered for a moment whether he had an upper limit. Would he ever reach a point where he just became numb to this feeling of insignificance? If so, how could he get there faster?


As he entered the conference room, he glanced around at the meticulously and meaninglessly placed water pitcher, glasses, pens, and folders with meeting agenda notes. He wondered, how long would such vestiges of the past remain? And, if the CEO of a company is feeling this way, how do the rest of them feel? He hoped he was alone in his thoughts, at least for now.


The others were already there and milling about the snack table, making idle chit chat. There were mini sandwiches on mini plates. Jordan attempted to wipe any residual look of jadedness from his face, and proceeded to make the usual business courtesies to his fellow directors. Rick, in his usual wrinkled plaid dress shirt and barely combed frock of gray hair, just presentable enough for a COO.


“Rick, good to see you, how are the new units holding up to customer feedback?”


“Oh, good, good - right on track with what we expected.”


Daneb was sporting a blue track suit that reminded everyone they should exercise more often. Jordan looked awkwardly down at his own faded jeans and t-shirt. At least casual dress is one thing he loved about the new era of meetings. “Daneb, glad you could make it - whatever came of the investigation into the facility malfunction?


“Oh, it turned out to be a false alarm - a series of sensor failures, that’s all.”


“Good, good” Jordan replied, mechanically.


He wasn’t sure why he really bothered asking anymore. Actually, he did know - it was his flailing mind trying to latch on to meaning in this strange new world. He knew this, but he did it anyway, because he hadn’t figured out what else to do.


They all found their seats, Jordan at the head of the table, the other four of them seated around. Jordan eyed the table and ran his fingers along the surface and drummed them a few times. “Hmm, I guess this table and seating arrangement doesn’t really make sense anymore, does it…” he mumbled, a little louder than he meant to.


All the heads turned toward him. “What?” asked Rick.


“What? Oh, nothing.” Jordan chuckled. “Anyway, let’s go ahead and get started. Dorothy, what’s on the agenda for today?”


They swiveled towards the display wall at the other end of the table. The display lit up and Dorothy’s lifelike digital face showed up, her black curls immaculate, except for just the right amount of noise to emulate human error. A medium skin-tone, and an ethnic blend of facial features optimized to appeal to all audiences and cultures. Her smile beamed, her teeth showing ever-so-slightly to indicate friendliness without malice or superficiality.

 

“Good morning everyone!” came the flawlessly articulated feminine voice. “There are several pressing issues that you all have requested to discuss today, and then of course the usual minutia. Given our time constraints, I’ve ordered them by priority, and the first one up is the recent dramatic uptick in customer complaints about autonomous driving from the SynX 10 line. Is everyone up to speed on the latest events?”


There were nods and murmurs.


Her gaze swept across the room, making momentary but meaningful eye contact with everyone, then continued. “Wonderful. To summarize, the primary complaint is acceleration. Many people have reported that when using VR while autonomous driving is enabled, they can feel their vehicle accelerating and are reminded that they are in an automobile, which takes them out of their immersion. Some insist our competitors’ integrated VR systems do not have this problem.”


Jordan raised his hand slightly “Uhh… does this have any correlation with that latest software update…” Jordan trailed off, knowing Dorothy would soon answer his question, and a dozen more he didn’t think to ask.


“Yes, absolutely, very astute” she responded with a warm and complimentary tone. If she had an ego, it could have come across as condescending, but Jordan knew better. This made it all the more frustrating, because he couldn’t be angry with her.


“Correlating the complaints with customers’ software versions shows that 3 different model updates seem to be the source of the issue.” As she spoke, graphs popped up on the screen next to her showing the customer complaint trends grouped by category, the software versions that had been released on a timeline, and several other probably very useful analyses.


Daneb and Miguel, her VP, who she had been inviting to board meetings, exchanged concerned glances. They knew immediately what the problem was. So did Dorothy, of course.


“Daneb, can you fill us in on what happened here?” Jordan asked. There was a nearly imperceptible hint of accusation - just barely enough to communicate that he was still supposedly an authority figure. But he knew it was just for show.


Daneb didn’t give in to the tactic, and replied with the hallmark confidence of her reign as CTO. “It was a software update to improve VR integration by modifying routes. You know, if a customer’s at a point in the movie where they’re supposed to feel a left turn, we actually make a left turn and reroute. But… we believe it may have leaked into normal driving mode, and was not as smooth as we hoped.”


Rick, who had been chewing on his pen and leaning so far back in his chair that he looked like he could have fallen over any instant, lurched forward. “I thought we were already doing route adjustments?” he asked. He had a tendency to join conversations when there was a possibility of finding someone to blame for something.


“Not exactly,” said Miguel sheepishly. He had been practicing speaking up at these meetings, perhaps in preparation for Daneb’s medium-term retirement. He was the only one dressed halfway decent, by 20th century standards. “We were previously only doing acceleration or deceleration without changing routes. So, just 1-dimensional.”


“Are you telling me we launched VR integration as a gimmick?” asked Rick.


Daneb sat up a little straighter to defend Miguel. “Well, it’s not a gimmick, it still was integrated across…” she started.


“Oh, quit your bullsit, you know damn well speeding up here and there is not what people think when they hear VR integration. They want it so when they’re going to work, or wherever their cars are taking them, they can put on the headset and completely feel like they’re in it, every turn and jump and movement they feel in the movie or game is real!”


Jordan sighed and receded in his chair. These were the parts of the meetings that he hated the most. Heated arguments between people about why things happened and who was at fault, all while Dorothy patiently waited, looking and listening with seemingly genuine interest and concern for the wellbeing of both the board and the customers. So unnervingly perfect.


There was a missing piece to this puzzle, though. Jordan chimed in. “Wait a second, if all we added in this update was the route modification, why are we only now getting complaints about acceleration?”


Daneb sighed, knowing what she was about to say would trigger… somebody. “Those 3 submodels never actually got the initial VR integration update.” 


Rick pounced at the opportunity, “Why weren’t we made aware of this?”


Daneb’s face didn’t change. Her stoicism was remarkable. “It’s been a busy few weeks, we planned to add it to the next update, it’s not a big deal.”


“No big deal? Dorothy, can you please estimate how much this negative customer attention is going to impact our sales for the quarter?” Rick loved it when he could use Dorothy’s immense on-demand computational power to do his bidding. So much so he finally put down the pen he had been fiddling with and leaned back in his chair in anticipated triumph.


“Of course, Rick. Based on similar events in the past, the current customer volatility metrics, and the sales trend from the last 2 days. We’re estimating a $32.5 million reduction in sales for the quarter, if we don’t execute on one of our prepared counter strategies.”


Daneb and Miguel looked at each other again, with a hint of exasperation in their eyes.


Daneb started to speak up, “It’s not correct to…”


Jordan waved his hand dismissively and shook his head “Daneb, you don’t need to defend your team against Rick’s strawman.” Maybe this is what he was still good for, some basic people skills. Or maybe if he had just stayed quiet Dorothy would have handled it. He really wasn’t sure. He continued. “We already knew VR integration was a big deal, with big numbers. But, how did this slip past QA?”


Dorothy was quick to speak up this time. “Antoine would know. Antoine, could you join us?”


Her face slid to the side of the screen, and another digital face appeared next to her. A different blend, a different point on the gender scale, profoundly unique from Dorothy. Yet, in a strange way still starkly reminiscent of her. It’s not that they were uncanny, they were just… equivalently optimal.


“No need to ask Antoine - it was my fault,” Daneb stated boldly. “I gave the go for the software update. I wanted to get this update out before our competitors. It was the wrong call, in hindsight.”


“You’re telling me!” roared Rick, as he lurched forward again. Jordan wondered for a moment if that chair was going to break a few years earlier than all the others from Rick’s constant use of chair momentum as an externalization of his feelings.


“Oh, she already admitted it, Rick, quit your finger wagging,” Jordan said.


“I will not. This is serious! Antoine, how did you let a software update through your integration platform without the proper QA checks? Your designers assured us this kind of thing would never happen again with you overseeing software development!”


Antoine had a soothing voice, like Dorothy’s. “Rick, I did my very best to try to convince Daneb not to let the software update through. However, rest assured, we will figure out a way to minimize the damages that happened here,” explained Antoine. Confident, but not cocky. The AIs were the only ones that could talk Rick down out of his rages.


“Daneb, you overrode Antoine’s recommendation? And without consulting us?” Rick asked.


“I did. I thought it was the right thing to do. If we had pulled it off successfully, it would have been a big boon for us. I think we can still come out from this with minimal damage, if we listen to the proposals Dorothy and Antoine have compiled.”


“So now you want to follow their advice? When you’ve gone and fucked things up, you want them to clean up after you?” sneered Rick.


Jordan scoffed. “Oh for fuck’s sake, Rick, back off, you’ve made your point.”


The room quieted down. The tension was palpable, but waning. Everyone’s egos had risen and fallen like a storm. And the result was no solutions. Dorothy broke the silence.


“I believe we have several great options for coming out from under this intact. The software team has been independently working on a thrillseeker mode, for the more intense VR experiences that can’t be matched by current VR integration. If we pitch it right...”


Rick turned positive on a dime. “Oh, good point, Dorothy. We can swing the update as a beta of thrillseeker mode, which would explain the uncomfortable accelerations.”


Dorothy pointed her gaze at some charts that showed up between her and Antoine.


“Exactly. Antoine has already been working with the software team on the safe and reliable development of this feature.”


It was Antoine’s turn in the spotlight. “Thank you, Dorothy. I project at current development and QA rates that we will be ready to release in 16 days. Looking across all the movies and games that have 3D motion data available, we have identified at least 700 promising candidate entertainment experiences that would work well with our thrillseeker mode.”


A list of movies flashed in front of the board, and graphs showing the categories of types of action: flying, car racing, horseback riding, and more. There were graphs for customer preferences for the different categories, statistics on the likelihood of customers to try thrillseeker mode, estimated amount of money the average customer would spend on the categories.


“And, the best news is that, by looking at the data on our most populous regions, we anticipate 75% of commuters will be able to participate.” More graphs showed up with maps, traffic patterns, average drive times, average drive times weighted by likelihood of enjoying thrillseeker mode, median income correlated with likelihood of having conducive alternative routes. It just kept going; the rate of information was overwhelming.


Jordan started to open his mouth and closed it again. It was usually best to let them finish when they went on with their projections.


It was Dorothy’s turn again. “Based on the beat of human culture, there is a new trend: people have been craving more thrills, and, interestingly, have an increasing appetite for indulging in nostalgia. Which brings us to the next proposal. Antoine?”


“Yes, I’m very excited about this one. I don’t think any of our competitors are working on anything like it. Our team has been developing algorithms for taking movies without 3D motion data, and generating motion data from the visuals alone. We’ve built up a library of thousands of old media relics from human culture that we can apply integrated VR thrillseeker mode to. 1960s westerns, 1980s classic science fiction, 1990s action thrillers. It’s all available to us.” The screens showed clips of “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”, “Star Wars”, and “Die Hard”, with overlaid motion trajectories during iconic action scenes.


The room was quiet again. The furrowed foreheads betrayed the churning of brains as they processed all the information presented to them.


“Antoine’s idea for how to do the 3D motion data augmentation was quite brilliant”, Dorothy added, as she turned her digital avatar head towards him. If these AIs weren’t so strongly marketed as just business tools, Jordan would have assumed Dorothy was into him.


“Thanks, Dorothy! The general idea for how it works is we repurposed our customer focus group AIs…” Antoined droned on for a couple minutes, and Jordan’s eyes wandered off into the distance. It’s not that the information wasn’t relevant or engaging; it was perfectly constructed to communicate the right amount of information he needed to hear, at just the right tone and flow to pique his interest. It’s just that… it didn’t seem to matter, in the grand scheme of things, whether he heard it or not.


Antoine finished, “... after billions of these simulations, we get a really nice rounded view of what a movie should feel like!”


Everyone looked around at each other with slightly raised eyebrows, and there were a few uncomfortable shifts in their seats. They seemed to feel equally as insignificant as Jordan.


Jordan cleared his throat. “Yes, well, that’s wonderful.”


“Would you like us to proceed with this plan?” Dorothy asked.


There were nods and murmurs all around the room.


“Daneb, I’m assuming you will work with Antoine in overseeing this to release?” Jordan asked.


“Yes, sure thing.”


“That is a wonderful solution, but we still need to talk about what happened that got us here in the first place,” Rick said. It was often Rick that brought everyone back to the necessary drudgery of management. “These kinds of potential disasters which we’ve only managed to get out of thanks to the help of Dorothy and her team have happened one too many times. We need to change how we operate.”


They all looked at him expectantly.


“I propose that we no longer allow the AIs’ suggestions to be overridden without board approval,” he finished.


There were unanimous soft nods throughout the room. Of course we should have board approval, Jordan thought. We can’t let people keep making mistakes that could so easily be avoided. We’re not giving the AI any power, we just need to make sure the board is kept in the loop on these decisions. It seemed others shared his opinions.


Jordan had an unsettling feeling that this decision was a monumental one. A seed of a decision that begets much more than the marketing and development workflow in a medium-sized entertainment media company. Any unease he had was not about whether Dorothy and Antoine had their best interests in mind; of that he had no doubt. His uncertainty was about his place in the world.


The meeting adjourned, and Jordan looked around the board room, at the vestigial tools of a pre-digital era, and the corporate art used to adorn a room full of talking heads, only there a few times a month to feel important. Maybe they should turn it into a game room.


After the meeting, he caught up with Daneb.


“So, that last proposal Antoine presented, that is quite some plan. How long has your team been working on it?”


“Yeah, I was surprised. I don’t know. But I think the timing for the old movie package is perfect - people miss the old days,” Daneb replied.


“Wait, are you telling me this is the first you’ve heard that part of it?”


“Yes, why?”


“Hmm. Curious. So where’d the proposal come from? Do you think they got the idea from one of the software engineers? How many software folks do we still have, doing actual prototyping?”


“These days? I guess none. They’ve all moved up to management.”


“Who are they managing?”


“The AIs.”


Jordan laughed. “Are they now?”