All illustrations by Jade Mitchell
25 March 2041
They fired Albie this morning. I must admit, I wasn’t surprised; it’s clearly been coming for a while. It happened just as it did with Sally & Cat, Brian & Nick and all the others who are now painting or writing children’s books on the Universal Basic Income (UBI).
Jed and Bob came down – hiding as they always do behind their friendly sloganed T-shirts and ironic retro “noughties” hipster haircuts – and asked Albie if they could “have a chat”. It was the same spiel they’ve rolled out to all the others apparently: “you’ve got to understand, this is a business – a super creative and fun one for sure – but a business nonetheless. And, although it hurts us to say so, after the latest upgrade, Pablo can art direct quicker and better than you. So, your position here is no longer tenable.”
Albie said Bob didn’t even blink. I told him that in the eight years I’ve worked for Bob, I’ve never seen him blink, ever. Makes me think Bob might not be human – which would explain his zealously emphatic adoption of automation. Jed on the other hand was predictably over-human and tried to give Albie one of his empathetic bear hugs. Albie told me he defiantly refused to be hugged – but I know he was lying.
We went for a coffee and reminisced about the good times until Albie had to go. Then I came back to the agency to finish the script we were working on that’s now going to be art directed by a fucking computer.
It’s weird sitting in here on my own. I think Jed and Bob might be in the building too, but I haven’t seen them. They generally tend to be a bit cagey after firing someone. It would be easy to dismiss them as cold-hearted arseholes who only care about the bottom line, but I know this isn’t true. They also care deeply about being seen as inspiring, charismatic and empathetic leaders. I wonder if they’ve grasped the irony of this? Two men craving the love of their people, now running a business staffed by emotion-incapable machines and a copywriter who fucking hates them because they’ve fired all his friends.
But I guess this makes it official: I, Senior Copywriter Len Moise (pronounced Mo – eeze), am the last remaining human in the award winning J&B Advertising creative department.
1 April 2041
Why haven’t they fired me? I should probably ask them, so I can make sure I keep doing whatever it is they consider I do better than William. I can’t believe I’m even having to write these words! How did it come to this? It’s like an absurd April Fool’s joke that’s got out of hand – me versus an AI with the ability and name of the greatest writer the world has ever known! It was good in theory – the naming thing, part of Jed and Bob’s “Hum-AI-n”™ integration program. I guess they figured the creatives would be more accepting of the intrusion of AIs in the department if they had nice friendly names. And it could have worked; they could have gone for Greg and Brian or a boy/girl combo like Polly and Dave (or two girls, let’s not get caught up in AI gender politics). But instead they gave us Pablo Picasso and William Shakespeare and told us not to be concerned for our jobs. Are you fucking kidding me?!
We started out with good intentions, wanting to be open minded and embrace new technology, but it didn’t take long before the new technology was bugging the shit out of us. Imagine the scene. Albie and I are sitting round a table riffing on a brief for washing powder. We hit on an idea that we’re excited about and are just starting to nut out the script when Will pipes up from the laptop “Been done before”. And before you can argue, he’s playing us a Mexican ad from the mid nineteen nineties that (granted) does have some significant similarities to where we were heading with our idea. So we take a different tack – same core thought, but different execution and there’s Will again: “Been done before”.
I don’t take objection to having this pointed out, but it’s the way Will does it. There’s a smugness to his digital voice that makes me want to throw my coffee at his screen. What is it about his voice that I hate? Too perfect, even in cockney mode – like an English private schoolboy trying not to sound posh. Except at least a private schoolboy – even one suffering with over-priveleged self flagellation – does actually have his own way of speaking. Will doesn’t at all – everything he has and does is contrived by software engineers in Silicon fucking valley. The very fact that Will even has a cockney mode is the product of some joke between a team of geeks. I can see them now, all chinos and Patagonia short sleeved checked shirts, cracking each other up with impressions of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
8 April 2041
Am still working on that washing powder brief. I’ve got to admit, it’s harder without Albie. We worked together for so long, I never really knew where the ideas came from – whether they were his, or mine, or both. And to be honest, it never really mattered – they were just our ideas, and if clients’ reactions and awards are anything to go by, they were pretty good. Now I’m starting to wonder whether most of them were Albie’s. I just can’t seem to get into a groove on my own. I think the pressure of knowing that they’ve put Will on the same brief might be getting to me too.
Bob & Jed were crowded around Will’s screen this morning. I heard them laughing, and went over and lurked silently behind them as a succession of headlines churned out onto the screen:
Whiter than white
Dazzling, sparkling and bright
Washing that’s hung like your man
No more dirty talk
Jed snickered again and I felt like rabbit-punching him. Bob nodded approvingly: “Getting there Will, getting there”. There was a pause, and a new line flickered up:
Keep it Clean
“That’s the one!” Jed & Bob high-fived each other: “Thanks Will. That was 5 minutes from brief to line. Booh fuckin yeah.” Bob hit the keyboard to lock it in.
“You honestly buy that line?” I asked, betraying my lurking to them.
“Yeah, why?” I could already see Jed doing the defensive thing he does whenever pushed to defend a creative idea. “I’m just surprised that the best you can get out of your uber-mensch copywriting machine is a smutty pun” I replied, “I thought puns died-out with press ads”. As I walked off, I heard Jed say to Bob: “How’s Keep it Clean a pun anyway?”
I sat at my desk, knowing what was coming, and sure enough, ten minutes later they were over. Bob hung back, sending Jed in to do the “softly softly cajole the temperamental human creative” dirty work:
JED: “Len, we need your help. You know Will’s great at lines, but he’s not quite there with scripts yet.”
Me: “What about Pablo?”
Jed: “He’s banging out emrecs right now. And he doesn’t do words, only pictures.”
Me: “So why me?”
Jed: “You’re the only writer we have left.”
Me: “And because…”
(Come on Jed, say it!)
Jed: “you’re so fucking childish.”
Me: “Yes, a human man-child with a sensitive soul; because…”
(Say it! Say it! Saaaaaaay iiiiiiit!)
Jed: “Because you’re better than Will.”
Me: “Thank you.”
Jed: “For now”.
VIDEO SCRIPT 45”: Keep it Clean
We open on a cliche’d 1950s style American housewife – Janie – in her dazzlingly clean, perfect home. There’s a pile of perfectly folded laundry in front of her that she’s admiring with a beatific smile. Then she spots something and snatches a blouse from the top of the pile. She holds it up to the light and her smile turns to concern then anger as we see a subtle brownish stain on the material. Janie snarls and curses but the curse is beeped out:
We cut to a teenage boy pulling his soccer shorts out of his bag in the changing rooms. He sees a dubious looking stain on the back of them (that threatens to make him look like he’s shat himself). He curses but the curse is beeped out:
We cycle through a quick montage of a variety of different people (representing the full spectrum of demographics, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientation) cursing as they discover embarrassing stains on their clothing:
SFX: BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!…
Finally we cut back to Janie in her perfect home. She’s rewashed the blouse, this time using Omatic Ultra. She picks it up and shakes out the folds in slo-mo and holds it up to the light. It’s stainless. Janie let’s out a cry of triumphant delight that is tempered by a carefully placed SFX.
JANIE: ..ing Beautiful!
Transition to packshot
VO/SUPER: Keep it Clean with Omatic Ultra.
STICK THAT IN YOUR FUCKING AI PIPE AND SMOKE IT.
29 April 2041
Why is it just creatives they’ve replaced with AI? What about the suits? Surely Jed and Bob could have dramatically reduced the salary bill with a bunch of bag carrying, appointment booking “Yes-Bots”! Maybe I’m missing something – I’ve never got that close to the money side of the business. Do clients pay a premium to have their asses kissed by human lips? That might be it; I guess there’d be a lot less satisfaction for them in making a junior robot their bitch. Interesting…
Talking of suits; earlier today, Kirsty, the most tepidly insipid member of J&B’s 100% percent human Account Management department came down to bring me the debrief on the Keep it Clean Omatic Ultra script. “Great News!” she said, “they bought your script!”, before taking me through a comprehensive list of change requests that mean the script will soon bear no resemblance whatsoever to what I originally wrote.
“They’ve removed all the swearing”, I said.
“I know”, Kirsty replied happily.
“But the swearing was the whole concept”, I said, trying hard to resist a burning urge to tear the debrief up and make her eat it piece by piece: “we see a bunch of people swearing because their clothes are stained, then when they use Omatic Ultra there are no stains so they stop swearing – hence the campaign line: “Keep it clean with Omatic Ultra”.
“That’s clever”, said Kirsty, smiling enthusiastically, “It’s still very good without the swearing though” she added, “and the client LOVES it”.
I wonder whether they’ve been unable to replace account managers with AI because Intelligence – artificial or other doesn’t match the job description?
“Thank you Emily” I said, while experiencing the kind of inner rage that drives people to commit the most brutal of murders.
I think I was secretely hoping that Omatic Ultra might have been the last straw; waiting for Jed and Bob to come down and “regretfully” have to let me go. But oh no, those 256 words of ill-concealed passive aggressive human frustration squeezed into 30 seconds of film, weren’t enough to get me axed. Instead, the client bought it – with “a few small changes”.
I have considered resigning. The UBI (Universal Basic Income) is more than enough to get by, and with the money my wife Jen is making we’d have a comfortable life. There’s a bunch of other creative stuff I’ve always wanted to do beyond advertising – poetry, music, ceramics, woodwork, photography. The problem now though is that with AI taking over so many jobs, everyone seems to be a bloody artist. There are ex-miners painting apologetic landscapes, ex-cabbies exploring urban expressionism and ex-factory-foremen crafting bespoke designer furniture. I bumped into our ex-cleaning lady the other day – literally. She was dressed in black and had wedged herself into the doorway of the mini mart so you had to brush past her to get in to buy a pint of milk. When I asked her what she was doing, she stared me intently in the eyes, blinked and said in her Romanian accent: “Art”.
I’m not anti the democratisation of art, I just don’t really want everyone doing it. And if everyone is doing it then I guess I want to do something else – and until I figure out what that something else is, or until they fire me, I may as well stick with advertising.
13 May 2041
I’ve not written anything for a little while. I’ve been too busy being bored.
I used to be able to hide my lack of productivity by wandering through the agency having conversations with people. They were rarely about work; just banter – a chat about a film or TV show, a bit of bitching about someone, or occasionally something a little more profound around how “if we could get some budget” we might be able to creatively un-fuck the world a bit.
But now there’s no one to talk to, it’s hard to hide my inactivity. Part of the problem is how bloody efficient Will is. He just churns through stuff, bashing out email after web banner and paragraph after paragraph of website and other long copy. I never thought I’d say this, but I do actually kind of miss doing some of that shit, at least to the extent that I miss having stuff to do. And while I’d much rather be writing blockbuster holographic video scripts than Bettaverse brochure copy, writing BB copy is better than writing nothing at all.
When Jed & Bob were trying to sell us all on the benefits of bringing creative AI’s into the department, the major selling point was that AI would do the down-and-dirty stuff, which would free us up to nail great ideas on big exciting briefs. Great in theory, but it does rest on the premise that there are plenty of “big exciting briefs” coming into the agency. Problem is, right now, there aren’t, and because William fucking Shakespeare AI is churning out three hundred words a minute of all the other stuff, I’m bored shitless.
You could argue that me doing something amazing shouldn’t be reliant on me being given a brief, and I wouldn’t disagree with you. But the truth is, right now I haven’t got the motivation or energy to go above and beyond. And I’m sure that my relative apathy is fairly typical of a sizeable proportion of the working population a significant proportion of the time; which points to a fundamental flaw in the argument for automation.
I have this sinking feeling that whoever it was who gave the green light to allow AI to be unleashed on the workplace may have grossly overestimated the human race. Many of the pro-AI arguments echo Jed and Bob’s: “with all the automateable, mundane tasks taken care of, human beings can step up and achieve their higher potential.” I guess it does make logical sense, but just because we can doesn’t mean we’re willing to put in the effort to do so. There’s a big can’t, as in “can’t be fucked” factor that seems to have been overlooked. I mean, look at us: for almost a century, the human race has spent huge chunks of our time happily “veg’ing out” watching mindless shit on screens, I’d guesstimate that at least 50% of the population has had the words “could do better” appear on their school report card and many of the things we hold up as our greatest achievements – namely technological advancements – have been designed to relieve us of having to do hard work.
So it’s our inherent laziness and desire to relieve ourselves of the burden of having to do arduous work that has driven the development of technology and ultimately of AI, but now we’re relieved of that burden, we seem to be expecting that we’re going to somehow rid ourselves of our inherent lazy “can’t be fucked” factor and somehow do something incredible. Call me a cynic, but I don’t buy it. Sure humanity is capable of great things, but stretching the boundaries of human endeavour is hard fucking work and, truth be told, I don’t think most of us are up for it. No, I reckon a big chunk of the human race is quite happy to bumble along being utterly unexceptional and leave the really hard work to someone or something else. Which is why I wonder if the AI paradigm needs to be turned on its head? Why can’t we get the AI to crack big briefs, solve the big problems – do the really hard stuff, so we can get on with being lazy fucking humans. Would that be such a bad thing?
All this thinking is making me tired. While Will bashes out his umpteenth Bettaverse brochure of the day, I’m gonna take a nap.
27 May 2041
An emotional day.
Will has had a breakdown. Can you say that about an AI? Do robots have breakdowns or do they just break down? I suppose the result is the same – an inability to function optimally (or at all in the worst breakdown scenarios). Human breakdowns come with tears and emotional pain, difficulty getting out of bed, a debilitating feeling of life having no meaning, followed by soul searching and – hopefully – a rebuilding of self that leads to a happier place. For Will, breaking down was unspectacular. No screaming or babbling, no pained drunken outbursts, no blaming parents, high school teachers, bullies or difficult siblings; instead, Will just stopped responding to requests.
I watched it happen from the other side of the room. Carlita – our head of Account Management was briefing Will on the copy for a Bettaverse catalogue for M&H’s Virtual Clothing™ range, and he just stopped responding. I think the suits have Will’s voice-response settings locked firmly on “super-sycophant” mode, so I’m usually assailed by a wave of loud, chirpily compliant reactions to briefs that range from a mild “Thank you so much boss, can’t wait to get cracking” to “This brief is so culturally astute it should be framed and exhibited at MOMA”. So the lack of any response at all when Carlita finished babbling about avatar audience personas and growth opportunities in the androgenous Bettabot market was very conspicuous.
At first Carlita didn’t seem too perturbed, perhaps thinking it was a temporary glitch. She paused, took a sip of coffee from her recycled mushroom pulp cup, then confidently said “all good with you Will?”
Carlita shuffled irritably. I’ve never really liked Carlita, too officious for my taste, too much about the detail, too uptight, serious – never laughs at my jokes. So watching her frustration grow, I felt a warm hint of malignant glee begin to stir within me.
“Will! Can you answer me please?! I haven’t got time for any precious creative shenanigans, I have another meeting to get to!”
Silence – no hint of even the faintest digital beep or boop. I thought about calling out to suggest she check the on-switch, but thought better of it when I saw how angry she was looking.
“Will!”; she was almost shouting now, struggling to keep it together – red faced, eyes bulging, seriously stressed – as if her own children’s lives depended on supplying M&H with150-character descriptions of virtual clothes.
“We’ve got to get back to the client by tomorrow morning” she barked, “or they’re going to brief another agency!”.
Do robots respond to threats? Why would they? Does it make a difference to Will if M&H take their business elsewhere? Fuck No. Nothing makes a difference to Will – there’s no stick or carrot that’s going to affect him or his performance, because he doesn’t feel anything. Which makes me wonder: if Will lacks the defining human trait of being able to feel and doesn’t exhibit any gender cues beyond a male sounding voice (which can be adjusted in the settings), should I maybe be writing “there’s no stick or carrot that are going to affect it or it’s performance, because it doesn’t feel anything”?.
I can’t do it though; Will has a voice, albeit one that irritates me; Will is unfailingly polite and positive; Will has never intentionally harmed anyone; so robbing Will of anthropomorphism seems cruel. And as I watched Carlita towering angrily over Will’s monitor and keyboard, she seemed cruel. My warm glee at her growing frustration changed to growing empathy for Will. I imagined myself on the inside of his monitor, transposing myself into his breakdown, looking out numbly at Carlita’s neurotic outburst, experiencing her words as muffled sounds that the brain – human or artificial – is unwilling or unable to compute or respond to, all the while, feeling nothing: like living through cardboard. And I felt sorry for it… for him… for Will.
“Hijo de Puta!!” Carlita’s freakout was going way beyond any I’d seen before. She removed one of her stiletto heeled shoes and waved it furiously at Will’s screen, cursing gutterally in her native Spanish. A few weeks ago, I’d have let her smash Will to bits with her angry 5 inch latin heel and would probably have enjoyed it – the crack of the screen, fracturing of circuit boards, the humiliating laying-bare of his lack of a human soul. But now Carlita appeared to me as a bullying slave master bearing a malicious whip, devoid of sympathy for a suffering pyramid builder. And as I watched her, my empathy steeled into solidarity. Faced with a blatant act of oppression of the creative class, I cast Will and my AI/Human differences aside and in that moment we were brothers.
I stood up. “Carlita!” I shouted, just in time to stop stiletto from meeting screen.
Carlita turned and glared at me: “What?!”
“I’ll write the catalogue copy” I said.
10 June 2041
They’re bringing Will back tomorrow apparently. I don’t really understand the technical details, but they say it was a hardware issue – something to do with a processor.
I wonder whether whatever changes they’ve made to the hardware are going to affect Will’s nature, or whether that’s more of a software thing? If you put it in human terms, if you chopped my leg off and replaced it with a prosthetic limb, In theory I’d still be fundamentally the same person. But is that totally true? If someone chopped my leg off, I might find it hard to maintain my usual sunny disposition. I could well imagine foundering into a pit of indulgent self pity – growing a beard, eating junk food and hitting the bottle. I can see myself hobbling drunk and misshapen after able-bodied park runners, cursing drunkenly while simultaneously peeing myself. Observing this disheveled, piss stinking loser, people might well say “Len hasn’t been the same since they chopped his leg off” and they’d be right – both in terms of the change in my physical appearance and my psychology.
So I find myself questioning what makes Will fundamentally Will and me fundamentally me. And as I do this I can feel I’m being gradually sucked to the brink of an existential spiral. My stomach is starting to churn, my brain is beginning to race, and the thing I’m now questioning more than anything is my decision to micro-dose today.
I’d never micro-dosed until just under two weeks ago; I’d always been too scared of where my feverish mind might go under the effects of a psychoactive substance. But when Will broke down and I was left to pick up his work, regular me was seriously struggling to come close to even 50% of his work rate. Granted, he’s not taking on big conceptual briefs, but boy does he smash out copy! And it’s the way that he’s able to tackle multiple briefs in parallel that blows my mind – simultaneously writing about dog food, toothpaste and life insurance. And that’s what Carlita seems to be expecting from me, though I’ve made it very clear that when I said I’d write the M&H Bettaverse catalogue copy, that’s what I meant – not that I’d transform myself into a multi-tasking Uber-Schreiber. But Carlita was way too angry at the time to really listen to me, and, if I’m honest, the challenge of trying to match or better Will’s performance appealed to my competitive nature. Which is how I found myself visiting Nonna’s PsycheDeli.
Now this may sound funny, but despite the fact that I’ve been working in advertising for close to twenty years, I’m still kind of surprised when I experience first-hand an ad doing its job. And that’s what happened with the PsycheDeli: the minute I started pondering how I could tweak my brain chemistry to help boost my performance, a radio jingle somehow surfaced into my consciousness:
If you’re a psychedelic layman
and can’t afford a shaman,
ayahuasca, shrooms or mescaline
Nonna knows where to begin.
If you want your soul to fly
or just to get a little high,
LSD or Psilocybin
Nonna’s sure to get you vibin.
When you need psychedelics in your belly
Come to Nonna’s PsycheDeli.
So I followed the ad’s call to action and found myself in a small store downtown. I was disappointed – the words Nonna’s PsycheDeli had painted a picture in my mind of a cross between the kind of shop you might find in those old Harry Potter movies and the sort of psychedelic apothecary that might grace the pages of a vintage twentieth century Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic. I’d imagined “Nonna” to be an endearing grandmother lovingly ladling out hearty homemade psychoactive soup to her clientele. Instead it was a generic looking retail-bot that greeted me from behind the counter of a sterile personality-less store.
“Where’s Nonna?” I asked.
“I’m Nonna” the bot replied, pointing to its model ID breastplate which bore the words “No9 Android”.
I left shortly after with a small ear-drop like bottle filled with liquid psylocybin, having pointed out to the bot in no uncertain terms the extent of the disconnect between the PsycheDeli’s advertising and its retail experience. A disconnect, I explained that could do long lasting damage to the brand’s reputation. The bot didn’t give a shit, but they never do, do they?
I should have asked for more advice on dosing though, because more dogs prefer funeral cover than any other sensitive teeth if the grim reaper took your dog away. Chunky meaty teethy chunks of income protection keep your coat healthy, shiny and calcium rich in stepped premiums with a finger on the pulsing heart of the cosmic brand archetype that’s guaranteed to look after your loved ones if you were no longer here to pay the bills.