Flash fiction

The AI Awayday for the intelligence collectors had been in the calendar for two weeks, and the mystery had added to the excitement about Artificial Intelligence. “Will there be outdoor games? Do I need new shoes?”

For Jasmine and Julie it was going to be a time to chatter. They had been inseparable friends since the first day in Intel Collection when they were introduced to the “collection tools” for trawling through raw data to find entries with intelligence value. The friendship had been consolidated as they learnt how to maintain the research databases that kept the tiny slither of intel that had real value.

The setting for the AI awayday was a country hotel that had been converted from a monastery. The venue was so remote that coaches had been used to ferry people.

“It’s odd they chose us,” Julie commented. She looked at the lines of chairs facing a podium in front of an arched fireplace that was large enough to walk into. “Where are the trainers?”

The woman who walked up to the podium had a tailored outfit, short-cut hair and a deleted smile. “Machine learning has come huge leaps in the last years,” she said. “So much, that we have decided to cut our collection teams by half. Your roles have all been identified as redundant. Your one-to-one’s for the clearing process are on the noticeboard behind you. Your possessions from the office are in boxes in the room on the left.”

“They’re firing us on our away day?” Julie whispered in disbelief. “I think ‘away day’ means we go away,” Jasmine responded.

Julie and Jasmine met up secretly a month later. It was secret because they were forbidden from meeting former colleagues. “I’ve given up with intelligence collection,” Julie said over her skinny latte, “so I’m looking at market research jobs, then I’ll see what comes next.” Jasmine studied Julie’s appearance and the way it had gone downhill in the last month. “Not me, I refuse to be outsmarted by machines,” Jasmine retorted, “there’s no future for any of us if they win.” She wanted her decision to sound noble, but the truth was she feared loosing control of her life and drifting between jobs.

Jasmine started reading about artificial intelligence. First it was online material, but the blogs were misleading, the articles were outdated and the forum posts were random and unreliable. She tried a university text book, and understood nothing. Then she tried popular books that commented on the limits of AI.

“These AI systems are pretty dumb,” Jasmine said to Julie the next time they met. Julie sat on the park bench and shook her head. “Jasmine, you should hear yourself: you were outsmarted by a computer, and now you call it dumb. What does that make you?” But Jasmine shook her head. “The AI systems we saw at work were generalising without understanding the implications, they were looking backwards to what’s happened before, and they didn’t understand the consequences.” “Yes, but they’re getting better all the time.”

Jasmine watched a skateboarder as he fell painfully from his skate. He was up again immediately. “I’ve made a list of all the mistakes they were making.” “You’ve written down secrets?” Julie was horrified. “You could go to prison for that!” But the list was in Jasmine’s head, not on paper.

There were job adverts for intelligence specialists to operate AI systems. Jasmine poured over the unfamiliar words and the expectations of qualifications and years of AI experience. “If they can find people like this, I’ve got no chance,” she said. “Maybe it’s like the lies they told us at work,” Julie retorted, “and they ask for their dream but accept much less.”

Jasmine’s first rejection came back within days, and the second within two weeks. She was so disappointed she hid the rejections from everyone. The third response came with an interview request. “You’ve worked in intelligence collection,” they said, “you still have security clearance, but what do you know about AI?” So she listed off all the mistakes she had been seeing, and how a human could compensate.

“She’s got the hang of it,” they said. “She’ll learn the rest.”

Jasmine hid her smile. She was back working for her former employer, they were paying her almost double, and she’d pocketed their redundancy pay. But what mattered most was that she had chosen her destiny.