The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Friday, February 22, 2013

This is one of those “hard” problems, isn't it?

Depending on how you want to think about it, it was funny or inevitable or symbolic that the robotic takeover did not start at MIT, NASA, Microsoft or Ford. It started at a Burger-G restaurant in Cary, NC on May 17. It seemed like such a simple thing at the time, but May 17 marked a pivotal moment in human history.

Burger-G was a fast food chain that had come out of nowhere starting with its first restaurant in Cary. The Burger-G chain had an attitude and a style that said “hip” and “fun” to a wide swath of the American middle class. The chain was able to grow with surprising speed based on its popularity and the public persona of the young founder, Joe Garcia. Over time, Burger-G grew to 1,000 outlets in the U.S. and showed no signs of slowing down. If the trend continued, Burger-G would soon be one of the “Top 5” fast food restaurants in the U.S.

The “robot” installed at this first Burger-G restaurant looked nothing like the robots of popular culture. It was not hominid like C-3PO or futuristic like R2-D2 or industrial like an assembly line robot. Instead it was simply a PC sitting in the back corner of the restaurant running a piece of software. The software was called “Manna”, version 1.0*.

Manna's job was to manage the store, and it did this in a most interesting way.

Via a comment at Hacker News, Manna, Chapter 1, by Marshall Brain

It's an interesting piece of fiction, and certainly timely as there's a fear of computers taking over our jobs. Even I'm not immune as I've felt for quite some time that there are simply not enough jobs for everyone, and that most jobs are “fluff” or “make busy” jobs just to keep people employed. And then I imagine the productivity gains if computers were really used to their potential instead of playing solitare and posting cat videos— unemployment would probably be worse than it is now.

And then I come across stuff like this (granted, this was nearly twenty years ago, but still):

Making a work schedule in a place like this is a fiendishly difficult task. Each employee has a schedule of availability that is unique to them. Alice can only work weeknights before nine. Bob can only work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and can't work after dark because he still has a junior license which prohibits nighttime driving. Carl can't work on Sundays, won't work before three in the afternoon, and his mother doesn't want him to work more than ten hours a week. Dave and Ellen can't work at the same time, since they're living together and one of them needs to be home with the baby. Furthermore, some employees are not suited to some tasks. Fred is too dumb and rude to work the register. Gretchen can work the register but hasn't yet been trained on preparing food. Additionally, you must make sure to give all of the employees the right number of hours for the week. You can't let the full-timers drop below forty hours or they won't be able to pay their bills. You can't make any of the minors work above a certain limit or it's a federal offense. You have to give everyone at least a few hours or they'll quit. Above all, you can't give anyone more than forty hours or corporate will mete out harsh judgement on you for allowing people to earn overtime pay.

Using this list of restrictions, exceptions, and limitations, you have to fit these employees into a schedule that gives you exactly as many people as you'll need at any given time of the day. This task ends up being an hours-long puzzle where there isn't guaranteed to be a solution.

At McDonald's this was done by hand. Here at Taco Bell, the schedule is first done by a computer, and then a manager has to come along and completely re-build it. The computer can't generate a usable schedule because the rules of each individual employee are so complex that there's no way to explain them to the computer.

Autoblography Part 34: The Systems Analyst - Twenty Sided

(It gets worse from there with upper management trusting the computer models over reality.)

And I don't know what to think. Are we doomed to live our lives under our robotic overlords? Or are we simply doomed to corporate dysfunction (“We put the ‘fun’ in dysfunction!”) and the collapse of civilization?

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