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When the Robots Took My Job

Write Club for the month of April

By Rebekah ConardPublished 2 months ago 6 min read
Top Story - April 2024
20
When the Robots Took My Job
Photo by Bibhash (Polygon.Cafe) Banerjee on Unsplash

This is for RM Stockton's Write Club prompt for the month of April: AI

Please allow me to vent.

For "college," I went to a scam school that is now closed. We were promised internships that were never spoken of again after admissions, and we were promised help finding jobs. The first time I went to the career counselor's office, she was completely frazzled. She had no idea what to do with us, the film majors. The second time I visited her office, I let her know that I'd found myself a job, and she was visibly relieved.

It wasn't a job in my field. My anxiety usually pushes me down the path of least resistance. "Solve the problem," it says. The problem wasn't to find a dream job, it was to find any job to keep me from floundering with nothing to structure my life. Any job to start supporting myself and keep a roof over my own head. So, I applied for this job that looked like it would take anyone, that was nearby, and didn't sound like I would have to deal with people.

Captioned telephone is a method of TRS, telecommunications relay service, designed to make the phone accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. It's pretty neat. Unlike traditional relay calls where you'd interact with an operator, this works just like the captions on your TV. You hear audio, and a moment later it appears as text. It's also completely free in the United States thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a concept, I absolutely love it.

On the operator side, it went like this: We sat in cubicles, listened to phone calls, repeated the words aloud in a way the speech recognition software could understand, and made manual corrections when necessary. A lot of introverted people found this job agreeable. We didn't have to interact with anyone, except occasionally our supervisors. While we weren't allowed to have our phones, we could do pretty much whatever in our downtime (back when downtime actually existed between calls). We didn't even have to make friends. I could show up, hide in a cube for eight hours, go home, and all was well with the world.

By Charanjeet Dhiman on Unsplash

There's a lot that I could say about my eight years at that job. There's also a whole lot I can't say about that job due to confidentiality. I can tell you how it ended.

They had already been working on implementing Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) before the pandemic, but the full rollout came pretty much around that time, sort of on either side of it. You probably have some idea what ASR looks like if you've ever used Siri or Alexa, or even just speech-to-text. You may also have noticed that sometimes it does a terrible job transcribing what you say.

So, hey, do you want to know the big secret to AI? The experience is always better when humans are actually involved. It's supposed to make our lives easier by supplementing our skills and picking up some of the busywork. I always knew that even before AI became the buzzword it is now. Whenever someone would lament that "the robots are coming for our jobs," I wouldn't despair. There's a lot that computers can do to make life easier, but we'll always need people behind them. I was optimistic for a little while. But, um...

I guess I underestimated how greedy and stupid people get once they're pulling the strings. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Things were cool at first. There was a learning curve, but ultimately I enjoyed using the ASR. It was faster, and I could keep my attention on quality instead of speed. We were still slammed with call volume as we had been for several years now, but now I could rest my voice and use less mental energy over the course of the day. It was also a better experience for the end user as their captions flowed more smoothly. The faceless announcements on company letterhead assured us that everything was great, and the operators would always be an important, essential part of the process.

Some people caught on more quickly than I did. I believed them because I usually see the best in people. I believed them because this was my first "grown-up" job and I didn't know any better. I felt so lucky to have avoided retail and food service, I was able to ignore a lot of the shady moves the company made. (Also, remember that part about me going to a scam school? I'm sensing a pattern...) They said, on paper, that we were important. They said, on paper, that our office was not going anywhere. They said, on paper, that any talk to the contrary was just rumor.

I'm sure you see where this is going.

By Rufio M on Unsplash

I was on my way home from visiting family in Alaska. It was the tail end of the journey; we had just landed at O'Hare to catch a connecting flight back to Milwaukee. I was in the very last row, in a window seat. The silly way seating worked out, my partner was several rows ahead of me. Like every other person on the plane, I took my phone out of Airplane Mode to see if the world had ended while I was in the air. Seeing 40+ unread messages in the group chat (I was in the Training department now) did not bode well.

Layoffs. Like, a lot of layoffs. Like, almost everyone I knew, worker bees and admin alike, very suddenly had a countdown to unemployment. (The ones who weren't part of the "almost," nearly all were hit by the second round.) Apparently, somehow, allowing the ASR to caption calls without human oversight became acceptable. No, they would not elaborate. They didn't need us or want us anymore. They offered an insulting severance package for anyone who chose to leave by the end of next week.

I curled up into the airplane window and cried quietly reading the e-mails telling me about my upcoming departure. I wondered if the people next to me noticed. They probably did, but who cares? I was tired from traveling and still had to haul myself across the entire airport to make my next flight. (In hindsight, I should have asked for a wheelchair. My legs were NOT up to the task, on top of the tears and fresh grief.)

Several things started to make sense. Our office had already begun transitioning to "remote only", which was Broken Promise #1. Captioning from home had been a thing since the beginning of the pandemic, but what about training? Were we going to conduct training remotely? Would our presentation about federal guidelines be updated to reflect the work-from-home model? Were we ever going to get admin computers to take home like the supervisors had? All these questions were suddenly irrelevant. Our direct supervisor had gone on vacation that same weekend. Did she know? I never worked up the courage to ask, and I don't know if she would answer anyway. A couple of my coworkers weren't part of our private group chat, and we didn't get to say goodbye.

The soulless robots, whose names I won't share and whose salaries I can only guess, had eliminated our jobs like dead weight.

By Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

Things are okay now. I bounced back, and a lot of good things came out of losing that job. I started writing for Vocal after the layoff. I got an amazing job with Yelp, and they've already proven to care more about their employees than I'm used to. The real treasure of captioned telephone is the friends we made along the way.

And you know what else? I found a second job where I can utilize the skills I developed from captioning. I'm doing legal transcription on a freelance basis. It's with a company whose entire model, their whole deal, their mission statement, is about partnering AI tools with human talent. I've been on a few transcription platforms before. They usually just have you sign up, take a test, then start competing for work. But this place? I had to actually apply. I had to actually e-mail back and forth with some humans. Those humans actually recognize and value my experience and skills, so much so that they fast-tracked me to their "pro" division where I get paid more per project and don't have to compete for work.

So, I'm still out here editing ASR-generated transcripts to support the mission of accessibility. I'm glad I found a way to continue making the world a more read-able place. AI is going to make things confusing and frustrating in so many ways in the coming years, but it's important to remember: we CAN steer this the right direction. We need to choose to be, and pressure those in power to choose to be, more compassionate than the robots.

By Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

humanity
20

About the Creator

Rebekah Conard

31, She/Her, a big bi nerd

How do I write a bio that doesn't look like a dating profile? Anyway, my cat is my daughter, I crochet and cross stitch, and I can't ride a bike. Come take a peek in my brain-space, please and thanks.

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Comments (14)

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  • Gloria Penelope2 months ago

    Congratulations!

  • Anna 2 months ago

    Congrats on Top Story!

  • Belle2 months ago

    Congrats on top story!

  • D. D. Lee2 months ago

    Good job getting through your hardship. Congrats on TS!

  • Flamance @ lit.2 months ago

    Amazing job congratulations 🎉🎉🎉 top story

  • Moharif Yulianto2 months ago

    if humans are replaced by robots, then many people are unemployed

  • Cathy holmes2 months ago

    I am sorry you lost the job, but glad you're doing better now. Congrats on the TS.

  • Kendall Defoe 2 months ago

    Maybe this should be under "Horror". A truly disturbing portrait of where technology is taking us. Thank you for this.

  • Babs Iverson2 months ago

    Robots don’t have empathy and a heart!!! Your story was heartfelt and loved it!!! Congratulations on Top Story!!!💕❤️❤️

  • Carol Townend2 months ago

    Well done on your top story. This is a wonderful piece to read. I loved it!

  • Esala Gunathilake2 months ago

    Congratulations on your top story.

  • Ameer Bibi2 months ago

    Congratulations 🎉🎉 for top story you wrote very well I appreciate your point of view

  • Stephanie Hoogstad2 months ago

    That sounds so frustrating, to lose your job to a tool that was supposed to make it easier. I think that part of the problem with AI is that people don’t know when to draw the line with what it does, versus when it collaborates with humans on a job. AI should be a tool, not something to replace humans entirely. Thank you for the insightful article.

  • Gene Lass2 months ago

    The value of that job was indeed the friends we made. I made lifelong friends there. Plus, in the pre-pandemic years, I wrote so much stuff while doing that job that I'm still pulling out, editing, and publishing stuff from 2, 4, 10, 11 years ago when I would really just spend the day writing stories and poems while getting paid to caption. That's all gone. The job sucked in many many ways, but the hidden payoffs were fantastic.

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