Danger, danger -- the robot arm has gained sentience!

The day's routine is livened up with a tape silo with a robotic arm, a tool to automate tasks, and a tech staff with a sense of humor

Help desk robot wearing futuristic headset.
Credit: Thinkstock

Efficiency and best practices power a well-run workplace, but you have to liven up the day now and again. If you have co-workers with a sense of humor and neat tech equipment to play with, the result can be even funnier than expected.

Years ago before I was a programmer, I started an entry-level job as a computer operator at a Fortune 500 company doing tasks like mounting tapes, replying to messages, and putting paper in the printer.

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Someone, somewhere decided we would get a tape silo. After the vendor installed it, we were instructed on how to use it, particularly how to command the robotic arm without harming ourselves or others. The robot's arm had two hands, and it could whip around fast. If anyone was trapped inside the silo when the robotic arm came to life, it could hurt if it hit them hard enough.

Thankfully, we also taught some safety measures. For example, after it first booted up, the robot would slowly go around the entire silo. If you were trapped inside at this point, let the arm bump you, which would cause the arm to stop. If it went all the way around and didn't hit anything (say, if you kept moving out of the way,) it assumed it could go full speed ahead and would do so.

Learning new tricks

In addition, the job offered opportunities to learn new skills aside from the routine work. Soon after I arrived, the department acquired a BMC automation tool called Control-O. Another operator, "John," and I were assigned to use it to automate tasks. We spent many hours figuring out ways to make the job simpler.

For example, the product could interact with the operator console, which allowed us to suppress informational messages we didn't care about. We used it to reduce the clutter on the screen, reword message to make them more meaningful, highlight important notes to stop them from scrolling off the screen, or autoreply to messages that had no usefulness to us. Or we could issue commands based on certain messages or parts of a message.

At the time, erasing tapes was a time-consuming process because we had autoloaders on the tape drives and the system wanted a reply to be sure the correct tape was inserted. Since we gathered up the tapes and visually inspected the volume number, the reply would slow us down.

But with this tool, we could make our own command to erase tapes, which forced us to verify the drive. Then we put the tapes in the autoloader and Control-O would autoreply to each tape, increasing the efficiency in which we could erase them.

Most interesting, Control-O let us automate the mainframe shutdown. This took many tries, as there were numerous items to shut down and a large variety of potential snafus. Since we shut down once a week, John and I switched from day shift to night shift for a few months to test the procedure.

Breaking up the humdrum

One perk to this job was the people who worked there. We enjoyed hanging out with each other at work or off-hours and playing the occasional harmless prank on each other. Taking the night shift not only allowed me to fine-tune the mainframe's shutdown, but also to get to know those employees better.

Even then, every work new task can turn mundane after a while. One particular evening proceeded as usual: We ran the backups, and I tested my Control-O "rules." Nothing went wrong, we finished our assignment early, and at the time there were no extra projects to work on. John and I decided to have a little fun with one of the day shift operators who would be arriving soon. "Dan" had a good sense of humor, and we knew he'd get a laugh out of it.

Using Control-O, we created custom messages with warnings about the robotic arm and timed them to appear slightly after the day shift arrival with a delay in between. We wrote them to seem legitimate at first, with each succeeding message growing more and more unbelievable to clue in Dan on the joke.

The arm awakens

Dan arrived, and the messages soon appeared. The first one said something like, "Warning! The silo arm is moving erratically!" We looked at the screen and feigned surprise while suppressing a grin as Dan took a look at the message.

The next one said something like, "Danger!! The robot is not responding and the batteries are leaking acid!" By this point we expected Dan to start realizing that something was up. Instead, he asked in all seriousness, "What should we do? Should we call the vendor?" I had to look away, so he wouldn't catch me struggling not to laugh.

The last message was intended to let the cat out of the bag. It said, "Send Dan in to fix it. He needs a vacation anyway!" We were poised for Dan to catch on, then enjoy the joke together. But maybe he didn't know we could program messages like that, or maybe it was too early in the morning. He sat there, staring wide-eyed at the screen.

His next utterance trumped all our work in seconds. In all seriousness, he asked, "How did it know I was here?"

We thought he was turning the joke back on us, but after all was revealed, he assured us that he was not -- he had truly been fooled. We laughed about it later, but for one brief moment we knew who among us would be the first to welcome our new robot overlords.

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