Roger wore his tool belt like a gunslinger, about as low around his hips as it could go without sliding down his legs into the dirt.
He wore a T-shirt tied around his head and talked strings of unintelligible slang—whose meaning I could only guess at—although I was pretty good at it. Or maybe he just agreed with everything I said I thought he said. But he was an ace at robot control, and he had an instinctive feel for managing the jobsite. Roger and I and the robots were the crew building a 77-floor hotel in midtown, and, despite the generous air-conditioning in the job trailer, we were sweating our butts off.
OSHA was all over us about fall protection after one of the bots blew a circuit in a thunderstorm and took a nosedive to the sidewalk. Not that anybody but Rental Tool and the insurance company gave a damn about the bot, but we were just lucky it was raining cats and dogs and there was nobody on the street for it to land on. Now we were on notice, though, and we had extended the fall-protection perimeter-steel sitewall to the edges of the sidewalk and flared it out at the top like a funnel. All the hardware guys were wired up from overhead as if they were an army of marionettes, dancing through the air around the rising steel.
Roger was the field hand. He was the one who actually had to leave the trailer now and then to sort out the anomalies, like when the interface claimed there were 14 rust monkeys bending rebar and only 12 were rented for the job. Or, most strangely, when one of the skywalkers sat down on a beam and the data feed indicated it was suddenly terrified of heights.
Roger got up from his terminal and lumbered out of the trailer with his hardhat and test meter, while I got on the phone with Rental Tool and started giving them hell.
“It’s going round,” confessed Old Man Ebersol. “That’s the thirteenth one this week. We think it’s a virus.”
“Oh, so you just wait for it to bite my ass and screw up my job and then give me some lame-ass apology?”
“I didn’t apologize. I just said it’s a bug going around.”
“So, what am I supposed to do with all this steel I’m trying to fly in? Hire real workers?”
“Oh, no, don’t go there," he replied. "Rental Tool’s got you covered. We’ll send over another crate of Ironmen. Just boot 'em up and send them to the top and keep the ones that work. Shove the scared ones off, for all I care. You’ve got a good fall-protection perimeter now. That’s why we carry insurance.”
I hated to admit it, but it was a practical, win-win solution and kind of fun, too, throwing stuff off the building. So, we took precautions, quarantined the site from the network and got busy shoving infected bots off the steel to the street.
I joined Roger on top. We found one crouched and trembling in a corner by a parapet wall and, slick as Vaseline, we grabbed its feet and flipped it off. Perry Pickney, the insurance supervisor, happened to be inspecting the site with his little opera glasses from across the road when the bot took the flip. We were rolling on the roof in hysterics when that thing hit the ground, and Pickney started to howl. We peaked over the edge, and he was dancing around in a fury, with his white hair flapping and his little red face turning purple, cursing in his high, whiney voice and going apoplectic like those stupid little firecrackers they call “whistling screamers,” which spin in a circle and go weeeee-POP! They’re the dumbest things you ever saw, next to bots.
Roger and I were giggling like madmen as we separated to look for more scaredey-bots. I went prowling around on my own, welcoming the respite from hours of labor at the computer screen and the opportunity to actually get up high in the blistering sun and smell the welding and wet mortar and concrete and listen to the noise of construction.
I ran into a crew of masonbots on the 50th floor mixing mortar and laying brick with dizzying speed, and I marveled as the labor-bots fearlessly wheeled enormous loads of brick and sloshing mortar in wheelbarrows across planks spanning chasms 50-stories deep. We sure as hell could afford a broken plank or two in the interest of getting 'er done. We were ahead of schedule, on budget and, since only Roger and I were on the job—plus that insurance fart wandering around—there was next to no risk exposure for physical harm.
I was congratulating myself mentally on such a job well done when the heat, I think, suddenly caved in on me. I was following a stupid bot with a wheelbarrow crossing a 2x12 plank over a bottomless space when I realized my peripheral vision was zeroing down like the closing iris of a lens. Everything was going black from the edges, and my sight was drilling down to pencil points in the center of my field of vision.
“Oh, shit,” I said aloud as I went down on my knees and then onto my stomach, wrapping my arms around the plank to hang on. “It will pass,” I thought, hopefully, and I believed it was true until my chest began to tighten like a vise and I started throwing up, my spume sailing off into space and spattering far down on the pavement in front of Mr. Pickney, who abruptly stopped his rant and looked up in amazement.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “I’m going to die 50 floors in the air on a plank from a heart attack, and I’m the only human in sight, except for that jackass down there.” I embraced the plank and closed my eyes and started to cry.
“There, there,” said a soft voice in my ear. “Take my hand. We’ve got you. We’ll save you.”
I screwed my eyes tight and tried to hang on. I felt the weight of one of the bots climbing onto the plank and embracing my body with its arms, safely locking me on, and then the crew of masonbots extended their telescoping legs and arms to reach far back on the plank, supporting it as if they were the cables on a suspension bridge, until they had the load and could draw me in safely. The forebot was programmed to administer first aid, and, just before I passed out, I remember him repeating my vital signs and instructing the other bots to prepare the paddles, just in case.
When I came to, I was on the ground, and a bored-looking squad of EMTs was shuffling up, shooing the bots away. Roger was standing about 15 feet away looking stupid, and the crew of masonbots was already wheeling toward the botlift to get back to work.
I don’t know about them bots anymore. I’m just glad we haven’t gone to the A.I. models—the ones that learn based on what they see. Some of them act pretty smart, but the confusing thing is that they sometimes seem almost human.
Tom Sawyer is ENR's Senior Editor, Information Technology. Tom studied fiction writing in college while working as a construction laborer during holiday breaks and on weekends. The Trouble With Bots is inspired by characters and their behavior that he observed on the jobsite during those days building scaffolds, throwing brick, running wheelbarrows full of concrete and hauling Sheetrock. Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article originally appeared on ENR.com under the pseudonym Montague Dawson.
To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.