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Working at the Vend

Tags: retail, ai

a sci-fi story about the artificial intellegence administration of a convenience store

Robbie punched the button for a bottle of orange juice with his right ring finger, a checking account, and tapped his watch. The watch blinked red and flashed ISF. He did it again and again with the same result. I can’t believe I’m out of cred. He pulled his screen from his backpack and opened the work page for the vend store he was in. “Dust mop floor,” was the task at the top of the list. He tapped it. The screen lets him know where to lock up his bag, and where the dust mop was, and where to sweep. Robbie shrugged and headed for the broom closet. The meter on his watch switched to show 0.2 credits per minute (CPM) as he walked to the broom closet, and increased to 0.8 cpm as he grabbed the broom and began the task.

As Robbie pushed the dust mop, he noticed a girl at the question desk. She was listening to an elderly woman complaining about not being able to buy lottery on red credit. The girl sent explanation links to the woman’s screen. “But this doesn’t tell me anything. I’ve always bought lottery on red credit. It’s not fair that my account is being charged right now for loitering and disruption just because this stupid vend store won’t let me buy lotto. I’ve always bought lotto or red cred here.” The older woman was saying in higher and higher pitched tones. The young question clerk said, “I’m sorry you are upset.” And tried to calm the older woman. Robbie was fascinated with the clerk. He finished dust mopping the floor, forgot about the orange juice, and looked at his screen for something else to do. His nervousness wouldn’t let him talk to her, but her allure wouldn’t let him leave.

“Carry 15kg box from safe room to coin vend.” When Robbie showed up in the safe room, a frail old woman was waiting for him. “I’ve never seen you before? I’m surprised ai let you carry coins, that’s a high trust task,” she said.

Robbie winked and said, “Ai knows I’m a good boy.” His watch flashed a warning about lifting with your knees and not your back, and he did. Back pain was not his thing. His watch displayed 3cpm as he followed the woman into the narrow corridor where the precious game tokens were vended. The elderly woman pulled a box knife out of her loose floral overalls and cut the box open. She picked up a small bag of coins, put them under a magnifying light and began sorting the individual coins into a vend slot. Robbie watched in fascination. He reached for one of the coins, and his watch beeped and flashed a red 1 cpm, and he immediately dropped the coin back in the box.

He reached into his pocket to check his screen for another task, but none were available. Discouraged, he went to leave. He looked over at the question clerk, and she was looking at him. She smiled. He smiled. He was standing at her desk, trying to think of a question to ask.

“You’re new here,” she said.

“Yep, I came in for a bottle of OJ this morning and never left, that reminds me,” he said as he walked over to the juice vending section of the store and pushed the liter OJ bottle button with his pinkie, a savings account, and pressed his watch. His watch blinked -20 credits. He opened the bottle and walked back to the question desk.

“Why didn’t you just use red cred to buy it?” she asked.

“That’s a slippery slope. I don’t do debt,” he said.

“Wow. Everyone’s in debt, aren’t they?” she said.

“Nah. It’s easy enough to pay as you go. There’s usually a floor that needs mopping, garbage to dump.”

“Wow. It would be nice to be debt free, not have to work all the time. Oh umm, speaking of, my watch is running backward. Unless you have a question . . .” she looked nervously around.

“Actually, I do. How do I get more tasks around here?” he said.

“You probably need to get certified to service machines, take a few classes. They’re easy. Here, I’ll send the class list to your screen,” she said.

“Thanks. I wouldn’t mind sticking around and knocking out a few more tasks,” he said.

“You can watch the tutorials in the break room if you like.” She pointed through a door in the back.

“Thanks.” He smiled and walked away. His watch flickered from -0.2 cpm to 0.2 cpm as he turned toward the break room. He set the screen on the table and sat down to watch a video about how to clean, service and repair a cocoa dispenser machine. He had never worked in a vending store before, so it was interesting to see the gears and guts inside the box that he had always taken for granted.

. . . . .

Meredith wore a poke-a-dot skirt, leg warmers, and sensible shoes. She pulled her screen out of her sweater pocket and spoke. “Task F52 wash glass on front door” Her watch rested at 20 cpm. She put her screen back in her pocket and took her cane from her arm and hobbled around the store suggesting tasks to ai. Ai agreed with some tasks and rejected others. She had worked with the system long enough that they had a relationship that hinged on mutual respect.

Her screen flashed with a new task for her. “Redirect new employee training.” Her three legs began their slow walk toward the break room. She sat down at the breakroom table and hung her cane from the edge of the table. Robbie paused his video and looked up at her and smiled.

“Are you the store tasker?” asked Robbie.

“One of them,” Meredith said.

“What have I done wrong,” he said in a sing-song tone.

“Nothing, but the system says that you need a little redirection in your education. What are you studying?” she said.

“I’m learning about how to clean and service the machines,” said Robbie.

“Ahh, that’s the problem. Ai really likes the way Zachary does that task and doesn’t want to take it away from him, but there are a few other tasks around the store to do. The food station isn’t high paying, but it’s consistent, even on a slow day it pays 1 credit per hour which turns into 60 credits just for being there, and sometimes it pays as much as 4 credits per minute.” Meredith’s own watch flashed 80cpm.

“So, what you’re saying is that it doesn’t pay that much, but it’s a steady flow of credit. What about stocking? I think I’d like to stock the coolers,” Robbie said.

“Most of the cooler work is automated. It gets stocked when the train comes in, and we don’t mess with it unless something is broken,” Meredith said.

“Oh, well that’s kind of disappointing.” Robbie felt discouraged.

Meredith noticed a certain glazy weariness in the young man’s eyes. “You look tired, go grab a nap in one of the drawers on the side of the store, and come back in and study for the food center after you’ve rested for a couple of hours.”

“You’re telling me to take a nap, and I actually like the idea. I must be tired,” he said.

Robbie walked to the side of the store and pressed his thumb against a security pad and a hydraulic elevator produced a casket-like pod. A safe place to sleep is a basic human right so anyone's thumb could open any unoccupied drawer, and paid for basic medical services, basic food rations, water, train transportation and other necessities. He opened the lid and crawled inside. The hydraulic system stowed him in the sleeping dresser. He thought about cooking as he drifted off to sleep. It wasn’t a job he wanted to do. Food is stinky, greasy, and germy stuff. Only losers cook. Maybe he would just get on the train and move on once he woke up.

When he woke, he felt differently about the whole place. He wanted to be a part of this complex machine of commerce, even if it meant cooking.

He looked at his screen and found several tasks. One was a dishwashing task that required watching a tutorial video first, then he dust mopped and used a Zamboni on the floors. Once these easy tasks were done, he went to the break room and found some recycled employee coffee and began the cooking studies. The cooking studies were in game format, and he won points for keeping fresh foods in the warmers, checking temperatures, and dumping bad food at the right times. Every level he finished opened new levels to him. He was getting points for tearing down the grills and cleaning behind them, and making sure the frozen hot dogs and pizzas were fully stocked. It was weird, but he actually wanted to try the real version of this game. Moments after this, a task came on his screen. “Make two chicken tenders.”

Robbie almost skipped through the deserted vend store to the food center. He found the kitchen to be set up exactly like in training. This was so cool. The disinfectant dip on his hands, the sealant dip. Dry - two three four. The chicken tenders were in the bottom shelf of the under counter frig, and they went into the oven on a rack, and the button, was just where it was supposed to be. Hey this is so cool. The tenders cooked and were bag-and-sealed and placed in the warmer vend. There was a clicking noise a few moments later when a customer bought them. Ai knew when this habitual customer would be here and what he wanted. There was a “ping” on his store screen, “Late night food service metal.” Robbie spent the rest of the night doing the tasks ai sent him, and playing the cooking game. His watch never dropped below 2cpm and was frequently up to 5cpm. He was having an odd and new sort of fun.

At about 2am a small blonde woman, wearing medical scrubs, went into the kitchen. Robbie was cleaning a grill.

“I’m sorry, did you need some food cooked? I didn’t see you,” said Robbie.

“Hi, I’m Terry. She shook Robbie’s hand. I like to cook my own hash browns, because I like them super crispy, and other people are afraid they will burn them. Nice to meet you,” she said. The edges of her meal came out black. She went around to the other side and bought them, then left.

At about 3am he met Zachary. Robbie came around the corner and was startled to see a small boy tearing apart a milkshake dispenser. “What are you doing?”

“Working, and you’re bugging me,” Zachary said.

“You’re an awfully little boy to be up this early,” said Robbie.

“Shut up and leave me alone,” said Zachary. His watch was sitting at 40cpm, and Robbie’s just beeped and went to a negative 2cpm. Robbie shrugged, and checked his screen. He had forgotten what he was supposed to be doing. He stole opportunities to watch Zachary work. The little boy went from machine to machine, manically tearing them apart and rebuilding them. He was done in two hours. Then he got on the train with his backpack, ostensibly heading to school.

Robbie’s feelings were hurt by this ai system. He was a tall, handsome, intelligent young man and ai couldn’t seem to see that. He had fallen into a gloomy sulking mood and was in the breakroom watching repair videos when Lily, the woman who had stocked the coins yesterday, came in and got coffee and sat down with him.

“Did you work in the days before ai?” Robbie asked.

“Yea, I did,” she said.

“Was it better?” he asked.

Lily sucked in her breath before answering. “Ai efficiency is different than the tribal monkey hierarchy that used to exist. It was uncomfortable at first, but I’ve grown to appreciate it,” she said. “I worked here when this was a convenience store instead of a vend. My boss was a bull in a china shop. He couldn’t cook without burning things, couldn’t make coffee without leaving a cap on the pot and spilling all over the place, couldn’t stay focused long enough to finish a task, always going to his car and getting high, but he was tall and white and male, so he was the boss. He was one of the first to leave when the ai system came on board. I don’t think he’s ever worked since. Entitlement is hard to get over. I won’t say that this is a pure meritocracy, because if it were, I would be the question clerk instead of that pretty young girl you’ve been looking at, but it’s closer.”

“I think I’ve heard people say similar things before. I guess I do feel entitled to the best jobs at the best pay rates. I don’t know why I feel this way, but I do,” Robbie said.

“Old systems take a long time to die. There are even still threads of slavery culture floating around. Being aware of these attitudes is what helps change them, I think,” she said.

“Lilly, what is the question clerk’s name?” asked Robbie.


The morning commuters were starting to stream into the store and ai asked Robbie to do some cooking. He had been up all night and wasn’t overly enthused, but he complied. In a couple hours, other cooks wandered in. Robbie got himself a bottle of orange juice, using his ring finger account, and wandered out to sleep in a drawer, where he used his thumb account.



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