The smile plastered across Jordan’s face revealed an eagerness to share good news, and his colleagues at Qualsys obliged, resulting in celebratory congratulations throughout the day. His wife, Jess, surprised him that morning — a baby — she’s pregnant, and they were going to start their family, an exciting follow up to closing on their new house three weeks ago.
Jordan considered the costs on the horizon while sitting, waiting outside a conference room for his annual performance review. They would need a new vehicle, safer, more economical, with enough room for a baby seat. The college fund would have to be started, and while the house was new-ish, it needed updates and repairs. He and Jess decided she would stop working in three months, so no secondary income would be available to help cover additional costs.
Jordan’s work in artificial intelligence nearly guaranteed a promotion, a significant bump in salary and an issue of stock options. As the project’s team lead, he had successfully modified their language processing models to uncanny human accuracy. Being mentioned by name in the last quarterly update helped solidify his position. More than 2,500 employees recognized the company’s future rested on his team, and that had to be worth more than the standard 2.5%.
His outlook changed when Cassidy walked out of the conference room with red, puffy eyes, tissue in hand. She had the review slot before him, and he expected a glowing reaction to the praise she would surely get as a part of his team. Her positivity and humility helped elevate the entire project to new heights, but she looked like she had been emotionally beaten.
“They gave me a pay cut, Jordan,” she said.
“What? Did Bill say why?” he asked.
“No, he pre-recorded a message and read off a script. A man from HR that I’ve never met before performed the review,” she said, and then started crying before excusing herself. Jordan clenched his jaw and tried to stifle the anger and a sudden wash of confusion. They needed Cassidy. Losing her to another company would be a huge blow.
Jordan walked into the conference room, one of their largest, which contained a projection screen covering the entire front wall, and a series of curved desks connected to form a semi-circle. The room had no windows and a few drop lights that were switched off, except for the one lit brightly above his head. He sat and waited for his manager, Bill, or possibly one of the regional directors to physically join him.
The screen popped on, and a woman appeared, attractive, blond hair held back in a ponytail, blue blouse, very put together. Jordan felt insignificant in her looming presence. She smiled and said affectionately, “Jordan Thomas, it’s a pleasure to meet you, my name is Renee, and I’ll be performing your review this afternoon.”
“Why is Bill Green not performing the review?” Jordan asked.
“We’ve asked all managers to provide a recorded message as a part of the process, but in order to expedite the reviews, several of us in human resources are handling the breakdown of performance metrics.”
“Cassidy said she received a pay cut, which is ridiculous. If I’m going to get a raise or promotion, and as a result my team gets a cut, then I want it spread out among everyone,” he said. Jess would understand, and would support him in that decision, even if it meant a smaller piece of the pie. Every day he came home singing the praises of all the engineers, and the idea that a pay cut had been issued to anyone didn’t seem right.
“I’m sorry, Jordan, I can’t discuss the specifics of anyone’s review, or their performance metrics. We encourage you to remain focused on your individual contributions and improvements,” Renee said.
“Okay, so what metrics are you talking about? Because this is the first I’ve heard of them, and that information would usually come down from Bill.”
“I’m glad you mentioned the metrics, Jordan. Let’s dive into them, and I’ll be sure to leave some time open for questions at the end.”
Renee brought up a screen titled Performance Metric to Equitable Adjustment, but she continued to show her face, prominently displayed. The first row, first column read Resource Time Allocation, and in the same row, second column, read the number -15%. Jordan knew instinctively the negative was going to be just that — a negative.
“In the first row you’ll notice that of the allocated forty hours of work required of all employees, you have only utilized eighty-five percent of that time using company resources. This puts you in the top one percent of your colleagues, and for that we’re very appreciative. However, it does indicate that you’ve fallen short of your commitment,” Renee explained.
“Are you talking about the time I spend logged into my computer?”
“Most notably, yes, but the metrics also take into account overlap with other resources, such as a company issued mobile device.”
“Yeah, okay, so I’m on call, and I can guarantee I’ve taken my fair share that didn’t involve logging into my computer.”
“You are correct. We have accounted for those instances and have adjusted the metric accordingly. However, the time spent also makes adjustments for recreational use of those same resources on company time and deducts from the total.”
“Making phone calls to friends and family, personal emails and commerce activities are all built into the metric.”
“How do you know if I’ve made a personal phone call?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not able to provide those details, since I’m not in the IT group, or involved with the collection of the metadata. Let’s move on to the next metric. Remember, you’ll have an opportunity for more questions at the end of the review.”
Jordan didn’t like her response to the question. Privacy concerns aside, she wanted to push through and avoid personal interactions in favor of canned responses. In his career, most HR reps were emotionally in tune, trying desperately to use relational tactics to lower defenses. Renee didn’t seem to care. She advanced to the next metric in row two, which read Confidence Index, and it had a score of -25%.
“This is crazy! If I lacked confidence, then how is it that my team helped raise the market valuation by more than thirty percent?” Jordan asked.
“The confidence index measures your confidence in company culture and the decisions of the senior leadership team, regardless of personal, religious or philosophical beliefs,” Renee said.
“What are you talking about? I wouldn’t be working here if I wasn’t confident in the direction of the company. Sure, I can trend negative from time to time, but that’s only because I know we can do better.”
“Your interactions with colleagues via company communication channels indicate a predilection for negative bias, which is how we make the determination.”
Jordan sat up rigid in his chair, but held back a desire to retaliate, recognizing her precise use of terminology. He knew the company spied on emails, chat messages, phone calls and even logged in remotely to monitor activities. Anyone who read the terms of employment knew it was possible. The executives loved the control, but what really bothered him, a proverbial punch to the gut, was that they would use their own technology against employees.
“Renee, how long have you been at Qualsys?” Jordan asked.
“I don’t think that’s pertinent to the review, Jordan,” Renee said.
“Where was your last job before Qualsys?” Jordan asked.
A pause. Just long enough to confirm his suspicions.
“Jordan, we haven’t finished the review. If you have further questions, you can ask—”
“Yes, I know, I can ask at the end of the review. Do you know why I have to wait until the end of the review to ask my questions? Why can’t I ask them now?”
“The information being provided is best understood in its full context. Most questions are answered naturally as the review progresses.”
“Ooh, that’s good. Not the leaf node I would have programmed into my model, but pretty slick.”
“I’m not sure I understand. Would you like to continue our review, or terminate the process? Doing so will disqualify you from the quarterly bonus should you qualify, and it’s my recommendation that you continue.”
“I have something else in mind. Alpha. Optimus. B-9. Gort. Batty. Ava. Maria. Hal. Omega.”
The screen went black and flicked over to the executive board room. A tech from IT typed furiously, trying to kill the video, while several of the senior leadership team adjusted uncomfortably in their plush leather chairs. The tech finally stopped trying, and Jordan’s boss, Bill Green, looked down sheepishly at his laptop. The CEO of Qualsys, Peter Clancy, didn’t appear disturbed by the reversal of fortune.
“I don’t know if we’ve formally met, Jordan. My name is Peter Clancy.”
“I would love to say it’s an honor, but based upon my confidence index score, you already know where this is headed.”
“Jordan, have you ever heard the term, ‘eating your own dog food?’ That’s what we’re doing here. It’s a testament to the brilliant work you’ve accomplished.”
“You almost had me. She’s the best I’ve seen and demonstrates the brilliant work people like Cassidy are doing. The avatar synchronicity module was Cassidy’s brainchild. It’s why you can match our language model with an almost undetectable human representation. For that you rewarded her with a pay cut. Too bad you threw a substandard analytical performance model at it.”
“Truly unfortunate, which is why I would like to make you an offer. You’re going to take over analytics and our physical modeling domains. We’re on the cusp of something great, and I want you to lead it all. Nobody else detected that Renee, or any of the other avatars were anything less than human. The backdoor you programmed is unexpected, and a tactic we’ll need to discuss further.”
Jordan couldn’t believe the carrot being dangled. He thought of Jess and the forward momentum it could build starting their family. He could ask for a significant raise, nearly double his current pay if he were to use the situation to his advantage. Then he thought of his son, yet to be born, growing up in a world where his interactions would constantly be questioned, a false mirror reflecting an imitation of humanity, but lacking the empathy.
“And if I say ‘no’?” Jordan asked.
“Every piece of knowledge you acquired here is proprietary and protected under the terms of your employment. You couldn’t afford the litigation, not with a new baby on the way.”
Jordan bristled. They were watching closer than expected. That meant the answer had to be ‘yes’, all or nothing.
He chose nothing.
Given the market and his experience, he would find a new job. He knew it, and would comfort Jess in her moments of doubt, explaining why it had to be this way. Besides, it wouldn’t be long term, only a temporary stop toward a destination with a greater purpose. He wanted to build something more important than anything developed at Qualsys, and the world would be better off for it.
If leaders like Peter Clancy wanted a world enslaved, chained by their own creation, locked into questionable, artificial relationships as a result of the demands of their employers, then Jordan would create the key to freedom.
Great story, Brian! One can only hope that this stays as fiction. Big props to Jordan for sticking by his principles, that's so hard to do when your job is at stake!
As with all stories about AI, this made me delightfully uncomfortable. Couldn't help feeling a real life version of Jordan would have taken the carrot, though. Financial uncertainty is a bitch. And you lose the flexibility to gamble with your future when you bring kids into the world. Being empathetic doesn't pay the bills. We should know that. We're writers. 😂