These stories were created in partnership between IRI and esteemed futuristic authors. IRI would like to acknowledge and thank the three authors, Madeline Ashby, Brian David Johnson and Greg Lindsay for the creation of these narratives.
“Job Shadow” is a story about an artificial intelligence system that is designed to assist humans in moments of crisis to move their automatic responses from a state of “fight or flight” to “rest and digest,” especially during high-pressure situations in which the return of poorly learned responses might complicate or unhelpfully escalate the scenario. The goal of such a system when used by representatives of the state (such as law enforcement, the military, or border control) is to both train and re-train the brain in moments of stress, to improve the management of conflict, and to increase trust in the state and therefore democracy when violence is actively trained out of the most public-facing aspects of the system.
Consider while reading:
- What would it take to create a future where AI systems similar to the one described in the story are used to help authorities make more informed empathetic decisions?
- What actors would need to step up to create an AI system that uses collective intelligence to strengthen decision-making? Who could make this future a reality?
- What regulations would need to change or be created in order to encourage the use of AI that increases trust in government institutions?
- What concerns would you have about an AI system used to assist in governmental or authoritative decisions? How would you mitigate biases? What would be the source of the data?
Place: Jejudo Island, South Korea
“Hi there. Are we too late for the Communist rebellion tour?”
Hyun-ok heard the triple-tone chime that meant an offer of assistance from the seonbaenim system. The system had an official name, an acronym in English that she didn’t remember, so she referred to it simply as the seonbaenim, which in Korean referred to an elder with far more experience and knowledge. Variations of the system existed almost everywhere, now existing in some form in nearly every country around the globe.
Because she was just starting out, and still in what the other staffers called the “honeymoon period,” Hyun-ok simply thought of the seonbaenim system with the honorific indicating it was senior to her, more experienced, and worth listening to. Every day when she put in her wireless earpiece and the seonbaenim system greeted her, she said, “Please help me do my best,” the way she would when meeting any other senior staffer monitoring her progress.
The seonbaenim system had started out as an algorithm powering a chatbot, informed by de-escalation best practices, that could be used by police officers to help de-escalate tense police-citizen interactions. The logic was that the system would help to improve community relations between individuals and official state actors in moments of stress or conflict which would ultimately help to improve trust in the government actors and institutions overall. The system fed data from body cameras, officer records, and more into an algorithm that provided de-escalatory guidance to help officers pause before shooting. The algorithm itself was informed by the expertise of mental- and community-health experts, public intervention protocols, and experiences collected from anonymous survivors of assault and state violence to create a system guided by best practices and proven methods to de-escalate. Although initially derided, the chatbot did what a thousand debriefs from sympathetic higher-ups couldn’t: it helped officers re-write their own automatic responses to high-stress situations in the moment. It worked from the idea that all things were muscle memory, even the capacity to calm down. Since then, the model had expanded to other industries, especially to industries involving service delivery that required frequent interactions with others. The hotel industry was a perfect fit.
Hyon-ok relied on the system in nearly every interaction throughout her day. After all, the system had been created from interviews and conversations with thousands of people like her, who worked in hotels and resorts just like this one, luxury establishments of impeccable taste and sterling reputation. The kind of places that fought over Michelin stars and considered it a coup to win the right Pilates instructor or macrobiotic chef. This was the kind of place that Hyun-ok was lucky enough to spend her nights. She still hadn’t made it up to day staff, yet — you had to prove yourself, if you wanted the coveted time slots — but one day she was going to. Especially if she listened carefully to the knowledge of her virtual elders imbedded in the seonbaenim system.
It was nice to have at least some elderly wisdom around that wouldn’t die on her. And when the synthetic seonbaenim system was disappointed in her, she didn’t have to look it in the eye.
“We were supposed to check in earlier, but our flight got delayed,” the guest standing in front of her said. She was one half of a couple. Both women were Black, and both had identical “Just Married” sweatshirts. These were the long-awaited Desmonds, each a tenured professor at competing Maryland universities. They were meant to check in that morning. Their name had pulsed on the right-hand bar of Hyun-ok’s screen for hours. They were booked for a series of tours and outings pertaining to the 1948-1953 rebellion, with a special virtual reality experience of the Darangshi cave, rated M for Mature because of the skeletons amassed there.
“Weather,” said the other half of the couple. “Karma, I guess, for taking a plane.”
<<Champagne,>> her seniors whispered.
“I’m so sorry to hear that you missed out on more time here,” Hyun-ok said, and pressed the champagne buzzer. Behind her, a door slid open, and the bar-bot rolled out. “But, to celebrate your arrival, may I interest you in some champagne?”
The two women looked at each other. “What time is it, even? We’re so jet-lagged, we don’t even know.”
“You have missed the welcome dinner with your tour group, but they have reserved the library lounge for a nightcap until one a.m.,” Hyun-ok said. “So please feel free to catch up with them. The late-night menu is still available.”
“Twist my arm,” said the other Mrs. Desmond.
Hyun-ok smiled and lifted two glasses from the cart. She began to pour. This was the last of the California dry, so she killed the bottle by giving the newlyweds a little extra. This was the part of the job she enjoyed most, creating opportunities for joy and nurturing within the guest experience. She thought of this as she continued to process and check in the guests.
Deep down, people just wanted to be cared for. But it wasn’t until they entered certain spaces, like hotels or hospitals, that they could acknowledge that wish and consciously receive that care. During her onboarding, representatives from management, both organic and synthetic, had informed her that she was part of a holistic system of comfort, one that stood outside the “real world” while also recognizing all the accumulated stress, hurt, and pain that occurred in that world. Jeju Island, they told her, was more than just an island. And the hotel, not just the building, but the entire brand and the intelligent systems that executed it, from luggage to laundry, was a world set apart. Hyun-ok herself could be considered as one feature in a large piece of interface and experience design, the same as the artificial intelligences that used years of collective human experience to get her through tough nights on the job.
Little did she know that this would in fact be one of those nights.
Hyun-ok was scrolling through the breakfast preferences of the morning’s checkouts when she received a ping from a co-worker, Ji-ah, about someone hanging around the gates to the resort.
“Security says she’s on the list for the traineeship audition, tomorrow,” Ji-ah said.
“She’s named Ms. Abelardo.”
Sure enough, when Hyun-ok looked at the roster of potential trainees participating in the weekend’s exercises, there was the name and profile data of the candidate. She was in Korea on a compassionate visa after one of last year’s hurricanes destroyed what was left of her area of the Philippines. She was a registered massage therapist, with a strong rating from a sister resort in Seoul. This rating was based on an exuberant review and personal note left by a minor celebrity whose name Hyun-ok didn’t recognize. But the review gave Ms. Abelardo’s profile extra weight, and now here she was.
“The training doesn’t start until tomorrow.”
“I know. She says her other accommodation fell through because of the state visit. Diplomatic staffers took precedence, she lost her room, and they couldn’t take care of her. And now it’s raining cats and dogs.”
This was the reason everyone at the resort was on tenterhooks. A bunch of dignitaries, including some foreigners, were visiting over the weekend. Hyun-ok couldn’t remember if they were supposed to be signing something or just shaking hands. In any case, there were a lot of them and a lot of staffers with them. They were all staying in villas along the beach and not in the hotel proper, but it created a fair share of headaches for the entire staff given it all fell within hotel property. It was, in fact, why the Communist rebellion tour group had also scheduled their trip for this weekend and done everything to stay at the same hotel. It was meant to be an act of protest.
<< Bring her in,>> the seonbaenim said.
“Bring her in,” Hyun-ok said.
“Are you sure? What if we get in trouble?”
“I think we’re more likely to get in trouble if we just leave her out there, and she reports it up the chain to Recruitment, don’t you?”
“Is there any extra space in the hotel?”
“Just leave it to us, Ji-ah. We’ll figure something out.”
“Who’s “we”? Isn’t it just you, back there behind the desk? It’s two a.m.”
Outside, thunder ripped through the sky. Storms on Jeju were supposed to be some of the most magnificent in Asia, but mentally Hyun-ok was already helping the morning staff switch guests over to their rainy-day itineraries. Hyun-ok never felt alone when the combined intelligence of decades of hotel staff watching over her. And in any case, it was normal for staff to use a variation of the “royal we” when referring to oneself as part of the brand. And security was omnipresent. Even the massive assortment of statues under the vaulted ceiling felt friendly, in their way.
“It’ll be okay. I can handle it.”
Hyun-ok started another pot of hot barley tea. Caffeine was the enemy on long nights like these, especially during a big pressure change. B vitamins, on the other hand, could help stave off exhaustion. And with the price of grain, the once-humble barley tea was now a luxury treat for everyone at the resort.
Ji-Ah escorted Ms. Abelardo to the night desk herself. Ji-Ah was the night gardener, a re-wilding specialist whose job it was to assure that the grounds were perfect when dawn arrived, while still meeting the resort’s environmental obligations. Ms. Abelardo wore a clear rain slicker obviously purchased from a convenience store and carried only a mountaineering backpack, the kind with aluminum scaffolding. She had stretched the rain slicker over the backpack, too, leaving the backs of her legs exposed. She wore no makeup. And she had difficulty meeting Hyun-ok’s eyes.
<<Something is wrong.>>
This was the core of Hyun-ok’s one problem with the seonbaenim. To reduce any one staff member’s dependence on them, and to limit the appearance of staff talking to someone else when they should be paying attention to guests, interacting with the vast well of combined hotelier experience was limited to either listening or typing in the chat window at the desk. Hyun-ok couldn’t ask what the system meant when it said something was wrong unless she established a chat window on her terminal or on her own personal device. Otherwise, the program was more like a supervisor who occasionally offered suggestions: a replacement for years of instinct.
“Kids these days have no intuitive sense,” was how Hyun-ok’s mother had put it when complaining about her nurses. “They just add everything up like it’s a video game. You give them one thing that doesn’t add up and they don’t know what to do. They can’t handle any curveballs.”
Hyun-ok’s mother had what she referred to as “a constellation of conditions.” There was no one diagnosis that would accurately label all her many issues. There was always something new, some new allergy or pain or tremor or other symptom. Hyun-ok sometimes fantasized about going back in time and rescuing her mother, saving her from whatever it was that turned her into the woman who wasted away and bankrupted them. Was it black mold? Bad nutrition? Too much TV? Too few hugs? By the time Hyun-ok arrived, the very act of living had worn her out. It was this experience, caring for her mother, which gave Hyun-ok a set of instincts all her own and helped her anticipate the needs of her guests.
It was this experience which made her agree with the system when it said something was wrong.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your accommodation falling through,” she said to Ms. Abelardo. “Was your trip out here okay, at least?”
“It was…” The massage therapist trailed off. Her eyes were everywhere but the desk. She glanced at the statues, the vaulted ceilings, the tufted leather sofas. The décor was a bit much, even for the most seasoned traveler. But Ms. Abelardo was already looking at the exits. Standing slightly behind her, Ji-Ah gave Hyun-ok a raised eyebrow that spoke volumes. “It was all right, I guess.”
Hyun-ok nodded at the backpack. “Would you like me to take your-”
“No. Thank you.” Ms. Abelardo stepped back, as though someone had tried to take the backpack from her by force. Then she seemed to recover herself, shook her head, offered up a big smile and curled her hands around the night desk, as though to show how empty they were. “I’m fine. I just need to sleep.”
<<Offer a cup of tea.>>
“Well, unfortunately, we’re in a similar situation with regard to available rooms as your former accommodation.”
This wasn’t, strictly speaking, the truth. It wasn’t a lie either, there were rooms available at the economy rate, which still cost more than a honeymoon suite in most other hotels on the island. But arranging a request for the rate meant submitting the case to the algorithm that managed requests which may impact the hotel brand, and that took time.
“But I can offer you a cup of hot barley tea while we find a solution,” Hyun-ok added. She gestured at a cluster of little blue velvet club chairs, which were low to the ground and felt like the perfumed embrace of a dowager aunt. Ji-Ah gave Hyun-ok another look as Ms. Abelardo shuffled wetly, her clear plastic coating dripping on the hardwoods, toward the chairs. As she shuffled, a group of young men in the lobby bar found something exquisitely funny and their laughter boomed across the vaulted ceiling. Ms. Abelardo froze in place. She didn’t look up. She didn’t look around. She simply paused mid-step and then a moment later mechanically put her foot down and continued her journey to the chair.
“Something’s off, with her, right?” Ji-Ah asked.
<<She needs more help.>>
Hyun-ok pulled up the all-night menu for the lobby bar and used her own discretionary code to order up a bowl of patbingsu, which was the closest thing to a serving of halo-halo, a common Filipino shaved ice dessert, which she imagined would be more familiar and comforting to Ms. Abelardo.
“Hyun-ok. Something is strange about this woman. Right?” Ji-Ah refused to be ignored.
“Of course, something is strange about her,” Hyun-ok conceded, in her lowest possible voice. Discussing a guest on the lobby floor, within earshot of other guests, was explicitly forbidden. Even in the small hours of the morning, Hyun-ok preferred to be discreet. “She arrived here on foot at two in the morning with only one bag and came to the front gates rather than contacting Recruitment, who made her reservation in the staff quarters. She arrived on the heels of multiple foreign delegations, and the Communist rebellion tour. Everything about this is wrong.”
Ji-Ah jerked a thumb back at Ms. Abelardo’s slumped shape. “So? Call security!”
“Nonsense,” Hyun-ok said. “Simply because one has reason to be suspicious does not give one an excuse to be rude. This is a hotel, not an airport. Do I look like a border guard to you?”
The kettle beeped and Hyun-ok fetched one of several branded tea trays from below the night desk. The resort had its own blend of boricha, a type of tea which also included toasted brown rice and tundra rhododendron hand-harvested by First Nations permaculture farmers in Labrador. She explained all this to her new guest as she poured the boricha into the resort’s delicate china.
<<Ask about family.>>
“Have you been able to reach your family?”
Ms. Abelardo’s face shot up from its contemplation. “What?”
<<Her logistics changed recently.>>
“Your travel plans changed. Is there anyone you need to call? The tea tray also has device charging capabilities-”
“No.” Ms. Abelardo’s face shuttered. “There’s no one to call.”
<<Did she lose her family?>>
“Please excuse me,” Hyun-ok said. “I didn’t mean to pry. Your profile said that you were in Korea because of the hurricane. It was thoughtless of me to ask such a personal question.”
“No, it wasn’t that. It was-”
From the lobby bar, the young men laughed again. It sounded vaguely like the barking of dogs.
Again, Ms. Abelardo froze. In her hands, the teacup trembled on its saucer. It made an audible rattle. Quickly, Hyun-ok rescued the cup from her hands before she spilled it and burned herself.
“Would you like me to ask them to quiet down?”
“Who ordered the patbingsu?”
Someone from the bar had arrived, bearing a huge serving of shaved ice, sweetned condensed milk, fruit, and red beans in an oversized brandy snifter. They set it down on the table in front of Ms. Abelardo.
And Ms. Abelardo burst into tears.
Hyun-ok knew that this was the moment for which she had been trained. This was her chance to prove herself. Instantly, she rescued a packet of tissues from her pocket and handed it over. Ms. Abelardo ignored it. Instead, she curled in on herself, shoulders shaking, her hands covering her face. Hyun-ok moved from across the table to sit beside Ms. Abelardo. As she sat down, her ankle nudged the backpack at her guest’s feet, and Ms. Abelardo shrieked, picked up the bag, and clutched it to herself.
Hyun-ok had seen this kind of behavior around luggage before. Jeju Island was a popular destination for some tourists to leave the ashes of their loved ones. Perhaps that was what was happening here. Or, it belatedly occurred to her, Ms. Abelardo currently had no residence but the hotel lobby, and the bag contained the sum total of her possessions. The seonbaenim seemed to agree: <<Ask about the bag.>>
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to touch your bag. Is there something fragile in there?”
Ms. Abelardo shook her head furiously.
“If there’s something valuable inside, you can check the bag and I can put it behind the desk. You wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
“Please don’t,” the other woman moaned. “Please don’t touch it. You’re a good person. You’re a nice person.”
<<The bag may have a weapon inside.>>
The hairs on Hyun-ok’s arms rose. “Thank you,” she said, softly. “That’s very kind of you to say.” The other woman said nothing, but her sobs decreased in violence. “It’s rare for a guest to say something so nice,” she added. “Most people forget we’re even here. They’re surprised we’re not robots. So you must be a nice person, too.”
She shook her head. “No.”
<<This is a confession.>>
“Why would you say that? That’s not a very compassionate thing to say about yourself.”
Ms. Abelardo wiped her eyes. “That was my daughter’s favorite,” she said, nodding at the patbingsu. She eyed the dish as though it were a coiled serpent and not a swiftly melting dessert. “Did you know that? The machines know everything, now.”
“I guessed. I’m sorry I didn’t choose something else. Would you like me to have it removed?”
She shook her head and continued staring at the dish. “She was thirteen, but she was young for her age. She still believed everything she heard. Everyone says kids these days are so cynical, but she was so trusting. Even after the storm. Even after they put us in the camp.”
<<A honeycomb camp?>>
“Was it a honeycomb camp?” Hyun-ok asked.
The honeycombs were lightweight, modular six-sided tents that could be joined together with zippers and tabs, allowing multiple generations of the same family to room together after a disaster. They came complete with solar batteries and mesh-net hookups to satellite social media. Although the concept had been greeted as revolutionary when it arrived, the honeycombs themselves were now a symbol of the sluggish inaction experienced by many climate refugees. With the tents in place, it was easy for governments to forget their people. And with the access to the internet limited solely to social media managed by unchecked conglomerate corporations, disinformation was rampant. The honeycombs became hives of rumors, conspiracies, scams, and panic. No one seemed particularly interested in fixing the situation, in part because the tents were sold by the subsidiary of a multinational holding company that also owned the satellite social media platform.
“It was,” Ms. Abelardo said. “That’s where I lost her.”
“I’m sorry,” Hyun-ok said, and meant it.
“They raped her. They laughed when they did it. They said it would cure the pox. Being with a virgin.” She swallowed. “I volunteered, I said they should take me. I said I knew what I was doing. But they heard this was the only real way to be safe. Better than the vaccine. They saw a video.” She smiled tightly. “They even put it on video. Streamed it. While they did it.”
Hyun-ok wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I know it must be so difficult.”
“It’s easier, now.”
<<The CEO of that holding company is here this weekend.>>
“Why is it easier?”
<<He has spinal issues stemming from a childhood polo playing incident.>>
“Because I’m not powerless, anymore. I know what I should do.” Ms. Abelardo reached over to the patbingsu and plunged the long spoon deep into the ice. “You know, I thought telling the police would help. It didn’t. They didn’t care. They don’t care about anything that isn’t drugs. They said those boys were victims, too. Victims of the lie. Like it wasn’t their fault.”
<<The CEO requires regular massage therapy.>>
“It’s so hard to know who’s at fault for anything, anymore,” Ms. Abelardo continued. “Everything is so complex. Nothing we do means anything. No one wants to be responsible for anything.”
With the older woman distracted by the dessert, Hyun-ok reached for the bag. Ms. Abelardo’s hand snapped down and clapped around her wrist. “Don’t,” she whispered.
“What’s in the bag?” Hyun-ok was whispering too.
“Multiple bags of liquid,” Ms. Abelardo said, shrugging. “One for each building in this complex. I don’t know where he’s staying. But you can tell me. Can’t you?”
Hyun-ok shot a frantic look at Ji-ah.
“If you don’t tell me, I can break open one of the bags now, and you will die instantly. Painfully. And so will I. So will everyone here. Your friend. Those boys over there. The person who brought us this dessert. Anyone who gets off the elevator. Everyone who gets on the same elevator later. It takes a while. But once it’s in the ventilation system it will go to every floor, every room. And the ones who live will have nerve damage. Forever. They’ll go blind. They’ll lose the ability to speak. Like with a stroke. That’s what happened on the Tokyo subway, I think.”
“Sarin,” Hyun-ok said.
“Sarin.” Ms. Abelardo now sounded much calmer. It was as though the act of telling the story had unburdened her so completely that she could no longer even imagine any obstacles in her way. “So you will tell me where he is staying, yes?”
“No,” Hyun-ok said. “I won’t.”
“You know what I’ll do.”
“No. I don’t. I don’t think you will.”
“I think you told me these things for a reason. I think you wanted me to stop you.”
“Even if I tell you, and you spare my life, you’ll hurt people. And if I let you hurt people, you know that I’ll have to carry it the rest of my life,” Hyun-ok said. “Is that what you really want? Do you want me to have to live with that? Forever?”
Hyun-ok reached for the backpack. “I think you’re a good person,” she said, as her hands closed around the straps. “I think you came here because you’re a good person. I think that’s why you told me the story. I think you wanted to save my life.”
She began to pull the backpack away. “And now, I am going to save yours.”