Beth held back a sigh. Her tablet screen had just gone red, and a blinking message saying, "URGENT -- report to the Progress Room immediately" had appeared. She undocked her tablet and did a slow jog to the elevators, checking the executive office cluster as she passed by it. All of the executives were away from their desks.
Doesn't mean they're all in the same meeting, she told herself as the elevator call button scanned her thumbprint. But she knew they probably were, since it was time for the weekly status meeting.
The elevator arrived, and Beth told it to take her to the Progress Room, which, it turned out, was only three floors away from her cubicle. She paused in the elevator bays, searching her tablet for all references to robot status and the Office Worker Automation project. If it was urgent and they were asking her to attend a status meeting, then it had to be about the new robotic office team.
Beth adjusted her features into her best poker face, palm-scanned the door open, and followed the arrows her augmented-reality spectacles displayed to make her way to the meeting room.
Sure enough, the entire executive team of GovCorp was there already. John nodded her in, while Ratna indicated an empty chair for her to occupy.
It was Gloria who spoke first. "We were just reviewing the latest weekly status reports, and saw some odd numbers," she said. "The OWA project seems to be losing efficiency every week." She hand-signaled the room's presentation screen. It displayed a line graph in response, showing a shaky but steady downward trend. "We just wanted to know if there were any... technical reasons this should be. We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."
"That's correct," said Beth. "Per the specifications and instruction manual, the robots need an hour downtime every day for maintenance, recharging, and data backup."
"All of them need an hour, every day?"
"Yes," said Beth. "May I?" She pointed her tablet at the presentation screen and made a few taps and gestures. Messages from her to various members of the executive appeared, pointing out the maintenance duration.
Gloria looked pained. "But we need these to work 24/7! All of our contracts assumed... can't we squeeze the extra hour out of them? Delay the maintenance?"
Beth shook her head and displayed more messages. "The one-hour window is the minimum. Either you run the robots at 100% for 23 hours and then let them run maintenance at 100% for one hour, or you run them at 100% for 14 hours and then let them run at 90% for 10 hours. Those are the choices."
"There must be some alternative." That was John.
"The manufacturer says there isn't. If we want more work, we need to buy more robots. I put that in my pre-launch report," Beth said, displaying the cover page of the report.
"We can't afford more robots," said Ratna. "We need to find a way to make these run 24/7."
"You could hire a human team to do one of the projects," said Beth.
Gloria smiled. "These robots... they're highly... configurable, aren't they?"
Beth shrugged. "Sure. That was a big part of the pre-launch work, getting them set up to take over from the human project teams."
"So... couldn't they just be, configured to work 24/7? Like an override?"
John nodded vigorously. "An override! Change the settings to what we need!"
Beth counted to ten before answering. "There is no override for maintenance mode," she said, displaying the relevant documentation page. "And configuration only switches between 1 hour at 100 or 10 hours at 90. No other choices."
The block in the centre of the table turned blue and chimed. The presentation screen went blank.
"That's the sales report arriving," said Gloria. "Thank you for all of your... information, Beth. We'll let you know what our decision is."
"Wait," said Ratna. "Let her stay. We were going to release the numbers in the next newsletter anyhow, and I want to talk more about this maintenance window problem."
John palmed the cube, which turned pink in response to his positive ID. The display screen showed a line graph, which had a far sharper downward trend than the robot productivity graph Beth had seen when she came into the meeting.
"We won't be needing those maintenance hours at this rate," said Ratna. "What's the analysis?"
Gloria made a gesture with her hand. The diagram transformed into an analysis bar graph. The "lack of customer disposable income" bar stood out amongst the other reasons like a skyscraper amongst bungalows.
"Wha?" said John. "We're not in a recession."
"We will be." Beth said the last, which made the team glare at her, since she wasn't answering a technical question. "Companies all over the country have been replacing staff with robots. The only people left are tech support types like me and managers like you. Everyone else is out of a job. I heard it on the news this morning on the way to work."
"But if we hadn't automated, we wouldn't have been able to cut prices," said John. "Robots work 24/7, okay 23/7, and they're more efficient than humans."
"Why don't you go, Beth," said Gloria. "We'll call you back down when we're ready to discuss the maintenance issue further."
Beth picked up her tablet and headed for the elevator bay. Along the way she spotted a group of robots linking together with their data probes — the robot equivalent of a closed-door meeting. She envied them.