2035 AD – Vijayawada
‘Ramu, your shave efficiency is 75% compared to all men of your age that shaved this morning’, came a digital voice from the smart shaver. “Yeah? where did I miss the rest 25%?”, Ramu asked with a raised eyebrow.
‘Contacting Shaverzine…downloading…ready! the answer to your question with detailed follicle and shave pattern analysis will take approximately 3.5 minutes for me to update, but your schedule tells me that you are already late for your next event, the bath shower is sending alerts, do you want me to still run you through the analysis?’, asked the shaver.
“Oh no! save it for later, I would want to be in the high 90s”, Ramu ran to take the shower.
‘…would like to take the 2 minute shower program today’, he yelled.
‘Initiating…’, came a digital response, as water jutted through the pores along with a fine mix of organic body wash. As he took the shower he shouted another command, ‘Send remark hash shaver 9910 hash – need crisper shave analysis – end remark‘. A device that looked like a green bug on the wall responded with a soft ding and ‘Remark sent‘
‘Refill shampoo supplies in 2 days, place automatic order…’, Ramu didn’t wait for the shower to finish the update.
Today was his big day. He would be facing the infamous “Sideline squad” at Phuntronics Ltd. Ramu worked in AA (Applied Anthropomorphism) at the company and have joined the firm recently after completing his PhD from Takshasila university, which is supposed to be the best in the world for ASSR (Advanced Sustainable and Safe Robotics).
The university was proud of producing many scientists that played a major role in the advancement and shaping the world thinking in the right usage of the art of Robotics and applied sensible intelligence, but two programs of the university particularly stood apart in which no other university of the world came even closer – Robotic Psychology and Robotic Anthropomorphism. Ramu specialized from Takshasila and was picked up by Phuntronics Ltd as one of the fast track candidates.
‘Proximity full bio-metric scan complete…authorizing Ramu to Phuntronics Ltd Robotic Division C’, came the voice and the doors slid open as he walked closer to the entry barrier. ‘No matter what, these digital voices would never sound human to me’, he thought as he entered the premises.
“Hey there Sheila”, he waved at a colleague who joined him along in the hallway that lead up to the presentation area. A 3 feet house elf type robot with a sadistic expression on his face whizzed past them both and hurled an insult “…are you prepared to face the fun loser?”.
“Keep your calm”, said Sheila before Ramu could react. “I am sure J K Rowling would be proud of these creatures now”, he said. “That is mean, not all of her house elves were mean!”, replied Sheila, “…the Sideline squad is designed to be mean, he is doing his job”. “How do you know it’s a ‘he’?”, laughed Ramu to hide his anxiety as he tried to set his tie straight.
“Phuntronics Ltd was set up by one of the brightest drop outs from Takshasila, Santha Ramani. Although she did not complete her education there, she incorporated all the Robotic ethics professed by the university. ‘The sideline squad’ was one of the genius ideas in action from Santha”, Ramu recollected the debrief from his mentor as he walked to the room in silence. “These robots are always on the ‘sidelines’, they never contribute to real work, and their sole purpose is to sneer, but share continuous feedback”, she said.
“But Laks, why have they been designed to be so brutal? Couldn’t the feedback be much kinder?”, Ramu retorted.
“Well if you clear the sideline squad, then your model will go through any levels of stringent scrutiny by any authority in the world, they have access to the world database of feedback collected by zillions of connected devices placed all over the world. The ‘remarks’ are streamed in real-time and fed into the squad instantly. Of course the devices listen to only those people who have consented to share information, so we are compliant to Robotic Data Privacy Regulations, and we don’t listen to anything else”, said Laks. “We also display the top 100 funniest remarks on robots made by people, in our dashboard”
“This is insane, but I guess important to know the psychological aspects of human interactions with robots”, Ramu sighed.
“Not just that, the sideline squad also has a handle on the alpha level research of Takshasila, which no other company apart from Phuntronics Ltd has access to. That is priceless! That makes them the best squad to evaluate any new model. Don’t worry, you are one of our brightest, you will do well. A 50% pass is all you need to clear, the highest we have seen so far is 65% and that robot is still in business, most loved by our customers”, said Laks.
“There is another reason behind creating this squad and that name. Our founder Santha belived that two types of associates ruin the company – those who do not take concrete actions, but only complain sitting on the sidelines and those who cannot tolerate feedback. The sideline squad is a reminder of these two principles, and to robotically nudge everyone not to get into that trap. You will face an extreme level of humiliation starting tomorrow until you are cleared, even if you have to make a 50% score”, she smiled.
Ramu gently turned the handle down and opened the door. There was a slight buzz as the 20 mean looking robots sitting in a semi circular formation around a huge table exchanged words.
‘What melodrama! they are just robots, they are mimicking human behaviors, that too one of the most despicable ones, you can face this, you are tough!’, Ramu told himself.
He heard laughter from the robots that appeared like ‘ducks speaking to each other in Morse code’ – “eh eh eh eh eh eh, are you the new recruit? Don’t you think you need to spend more time with Phuntronics before facing the squad?”, said a robot sitting on one side of the table. “Don’t bother answering that, where’s your toy? Invoke the model”, said another.
Ramu walked to the center of the room and tapped on his wrist. Two tiles on the floor in front of him slid aside. A beautiful humanoid robot emerged and opened her eyes.
“Do you have a stupid name? eh, aren’t you a girl?”, asked someone.
“Yes, I can shape shift at the inital configuration time as per user preferences, settings include change of gender, height, age, nationality, cultural background and you can give me a name, might I suggest a few options?”, came a kind reply.
“Nope! initiate compliance scans. Expose your access points, for this evaluation we will call you Eva”, came another command. The girl nodded and lifted both her arms and an intricate web of digital interfaces shot up around her, almost clouding her form. All the 20 robots scanned through the connectors making noises in between. “Compliance scans barely passed, we expected better performance than this, initiating security scans…”
That was a good sign for Ramu. Moving to next stage meant that his robot is making progress with the squad. After the fundamental checks were done, the squad moved on to evaluating the model with their anthropomorphic feedback.
“Hair is unrealistic, rough texture, water proof?”, asked a robot. “Adjustable and water proof”, answered Eva.
“Last time an angry customer remarked that his robot had a stupid smile even when someone passed away in the family, can your face show an empathetic expression?”. Eva mimicked a sad face and said, “I feel sorry to be around you all”. “Not yet, we will get there soon”, jeered another robot.
The evaluation continued for several hours where Eva was scrutinized for her ability to react and respond to several human interactions and circumstances. After this the squad said, “we will observe the robot in action for the next several days, in simulated contexts. You score a 49% for today’s performance, but this is not the final mark, we are sure you would score much lower overall once we are through with this” and they all laughed again in unison.
“Who designed these maniacs?”, Ramu could not control his anger as he met Sheila and Laks outside the presentation room. “A 49% is a good score, if the squad agreed to next stage”, said Laks. “Technically you are through if you get couple of more percentage points from your colleagues, after further manual evaluation”, said Sheila.
“No I want to go through the next round with the squad and do the full review. Would like to see what they bring forth”, was Ramu’s reply.
In the next few days, as Ramu worked with Eva, the sideline squad would pop-in and comment on anything ranging from the looks of Eva to the working style of Ramu.
“You are not working enough with your prog bots, have you checked what runtime are they on?…”
“Have you fixed compliance issues yet, do you know that when you fix an observation your robot should initiate a review uplink to the sideline squad?…”
“Your working hours can be better, ensure consistency for better productivity…”
“Can you guys ever shut up and not get personal with my work style”, yelled Ramu once. “Stop commenting and do something for a change”. “eh…eh…eh…eh…eh”, they laughed and left his zone. “I will quit this company if Santha doesn’t authorize someone to at least fix this annoying dumb ass digital laughter”, he kicked the door shut.
The sideline squad visited Ramu constantly and interacted with Eva, and also continued to comment on several aspects of his workstyle. As he got used to this, Ramu realized that there is an element of improvement in every remark they threw at him. Afterall, these robots are designed to synthesize and relay “what can improve” although in an insulting manner. It made him more resolute and although he did not accept every insult thrown at him, very soon he learnt to handle the sideline squad with ease and comfort. Even more, he started to have fun with these interactions and waited for their surprise visits.
“It appeared to me initially that no one insulted me so much, but as I looked closely, they are not making aimless remarks. I am paying attention to every comment made as it is based on either a realworld feedback or a regulatory norm, Eva is getting better and better”, he told Laks with enthusiasm.
This change in his attitude also meant that he worked with improved focus and enthusiasm on Eva. “I like the name, may be there is a reason they just threw that name at you”, he once told his robot. “Its short and two syllable, most people would find it easy to utter, even those with mild speaking disabilities…”, replied the robot, “…but hey its configurable”.
“Welcome guys”, he said when the two robots from the squad came in next day. “eh…eh…eh…eh”, they turned around and left.
“Strange!”, said Eva. “I heard you remark last week that you are looking forward to their visit, and yesterday when they visited our zone while you were away, I welcomed them, and they immediately left making that annoying laughter!”, exclaimed Eva mimicking an expression of surprise on her face.
‘Drop theatrics’, Ramu issued a command and Eva retracted her face to normal.
“I have a changed opinion on thier laughter too Eva”, he smiled and she mimicked his smile.
“A final score of 64.5%, our CEO wants to meet with you Ramu, this is close to being historical, although I wanted you to cross 65”, Laks conveyed the results to Ramu. “The blueprint will now be sent for final approval before authorizing a pilot production for select geographies and globally scaled later”, she added.
“I should’ve scored 0.5% more indeed”, Ramu raised his shoulders, “but if it’s good enough for a meet with CEO, I’d settle for that”.
“The Sideline Squad was designed with the purpose of inflicting tough feedback to our designers, especially in your area of Anthropomorphism…”, Santha spoke camly, “…most design teams aim to cross the 50% mark and ship the robot to next phase. They find it hard to tolerate the scrutiny with these robots. Very few attempt to take on the challenge all the way through. Apart from the synthesized input from outside world, the sideline squad also is fed with inputs on the failure models, the ones which never hit the production line and that is 80% of the models that have hit the 50% pass mark! but not many care about that, their KPI is crossing this scrutiny alone”.
Ramu listened intently with deep respect. Getting an audience with the CEO in the first year at Phuntronics was not even close to being his dream.
“You did well Ramu. I would like more of our employees to go through the realization you’ve experienced and learn to evaluate inputs keenly beyond the periphery”, she said.
“At least we don’t have anyone sitting on the sidelines and only making comments Santha, thanks to the squad, no one likes to mimic this behavior. All our employees believe in execution and that’s a great thing we’ve achieved”, replied Ramu.
“Yes! Only the sideline squad are allowed to sit on the sidelines and complain about everything and everyone at Phuntronics. By the way your rash behavior once with the squad when you yelled at them, there went your 0.5%. I was the one that scored 65% after we launched the squad”, Santha winked.
“What about the rest 35%?”, Ramu enquired.
“They are observations and inputs for the subsequent phases of production preparation based on your model, past data and a lot of proprietary AI, it is technically not a feedback for this stage. It is a reminder to state that your work is only 65% done, and the robot will see its life provided the rest of the observations are met too”, she smiled.
“That is an awesome way to score and inculcate end-to-end thinking! Thank you for your time and appreciation”, remarked Ramu as he took her leave.
“Closing the meeting, Phuntronics Ltd wishes you a very good evening”, came the digital voice as Ramu removed his AXR (advanced extended reality) headset after the CEO meet and stepped out of his working room at his home. He put on his smart shoes and prepared to go for a jog.
“Initiating jog counters, weight 72 Kg…”.
“Switch off”, Ramu issued a break command and took off with a smile on his face.