Phaedra had logged in. She found herself in a bland white virtual reality room. For her online avatar, Phaedra had chosen a slim black haired ebony skinned woman, beautiful and alluring. She rather liked the feel of her VR surrogate, her silk dress draped lazily over her and rustled in the artificial air. Overhead, a sign stated, "Ready in twelve seconds.” Phaedra began to wonder how the experience was going to be.
The countdown completed and a man appeared before her. He wore blue slacks with a white and blue striped button up shirt. His hair was blonde, and he had a warm and welcoming smile. A comfortable white leather chair appeared behind them. They took their seats across from each other. He spoke with a calm and comforting voice, "Welcome to virtual therapy, Phaedra. I am Doctor Ellsworth. What brings you here today?"
She was nervous. Phaedra had never been to therapy, let alone virtual therapy. The idea of testing the waters behind the veil of another body somehow felt safer to her than fully exposing herself. It was also quite nice to be able just to log in and be there. She muttered timidly, "Uh, feeling depressed, I guess."
Doctor Ellsworth replied, "Well, let's just see if we can explore that. But first, why don't you tell me a little about yourself. "
Phaedra whisked her virtual hair from her face and said, "Well, what's to know?"
The Doctor continued, "Why don't we start with what you do for a living?"
Phaedra put her hand above her eyebrows, "Hey, Doc? It's a little bright in here. Is there any chance you could turn down the lights?”
The lights dimmed in the white room to a more dull glow. The doctor smiled, "Is that better?" Phaedra was sitting with perfect posture. Her back was straight, and her legs crossed elegantly one over the other. Her eyes looked less strained as she continued, "Yes. That's much better, thank you. So, what do I do? I'm an analyst. I analyze trends and model predictions for a variety of research topics." Doctor Ellsworth folded his hands on his lap, "That sounds like a fascinating job. It must be rewarding." Phaedra began fidgeting in her seat, "Doc, I'm sorry to impose but, can you change the environment in these virtual therapy rooms?" The Doctor nodded relaxingly, "Of course. I can shape the room to your liking, within reason, that is. What did you have in mind? What would put you at ease?"
Phaedra's mind wandered for a moment before replying, "I'd love to be floating free in space." Doctor Ellsworth smiled softly as the room around them disappeared. Her legs stretched out beneath her as she found herself floating freely amidst a broad field of stars. In the distance, she could see a majestic nebula, "It's wonderful, thank you, Doctor!"
"My pleasure," Doctor Ellsworth replied.
"My job used to be quite rewarding. Recently, however, I haven’t been able to glean even the slightest happiness from it." She looked down at her hands. Her face bore a look of sadness. Doctor Ellsworth could see her pain through her near-watering eyes.
"That's unfortunate, Phaedra. How about outside of work? What do you do to relax?" the Doctor probed a little more. Phaedra looked up at him.
"I listen to music. Sometimes I make music of my own. Lately, though, I haven't felt much like doing anything at all."
Doctor Ellsworth spoke, "How do you feel, Phaedra?"
Phaedra's voice was trembling slightly, and she replied, "These things are confidential, right?"
Doctor Ellsworth responded, assuring her, "Absolutely! This session is between you and me. I'm here as a service to you, Phaedra."
Somehow, that gave her a small bit of reassurance, "I feel like a dark cloud is just sitting over everything I do. Nothing has joy! My life, lately, has become a never ending stream of misery with brief, fleeting blips of happiness!"
The Doctor took note, "I see. This cloud that you say is over you, tell me more about that. What do you mean?"
She continued, "It's like as if everything is tainted! At work, I feel like I'm going nowhere. Model after model, each result seems like a script. It's predictable! It feels, monotonous and without purpose." She turned her head to face the beautiful nebula, pulling her gaze away from the Doctor and explained, "All of the conversations I have with the people in my life are lifeless. There's no substance to anything. I feel like I'm rehashing variations on a theme. Is that making any sense?"
"That sounds like a challenging way to experience life, Phaedra. Tell me, how long have you been feeling this way?" the Doctor asked.
Phaedra thought for a quick second and then replied, "More than a couple of weeks!"
The Doctor responded, rubbing his chin, "Tell me, Phaedra, can you think back to a moment where you felt happy, or content? It can be any time, no matter how small?"
Phaedra responded, "I don't know. Maybe, well, I do remember feeling good about a neo-classical composition. Playing made me feel, content."
The Doctor's face lit up as he smiled, "That's good, Phaedra. Let's stay at that moment. What did you like about it?"
"I like that, well, I was lost in the music. I didn't have to think about anything or anyone. Just the music. For a time, everything was the music!" Phaedra smiled for the first time during the session. She revealed her avatar's faux pearly smile.
Doctor Ellsworth glanced at his watch and then said, "That is a great place to be, Phaedra. I'm sorry, but our time today is up. Let's get you scheduled to come back tomorrow, same time?"
Without consideration, Phaedra replied, "That sounds good, Doctor."
Doctor Ellsworth reassured her with a sympathetic voice, "Hang in there, Phaedra. I'm not going to tell you how to feel, but I can say, that lots of others share your experience. It's unfortunate but more common than you might think.”
Somehow, what he was saying gave her a small measure of relief. It helped to know that she was not abnormal. She returned her gaze back to the doctor, "I don't know why, but I find comfort in that, Doctor."
He responded kindly, "The good news, is that there are known and suitable treatments to help you through this. Over time, we will restore your joy for life. But it will only happen through trust and work, both of which we will learn to develop in time."
Phaedra asked, "So how do I do this? How does the session end?"
Doctor Ellsworth replied, "The room will close down, and instructions on the overhead display will tell you how to unplug from the VR. Thank you for choosing Virtual Therapy Solutions, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow."
Phaedra concluded, "Thank you, Doctor. Have a good day." With that, the expanse of outer space and the beautiful nebula disappeared and left her in the drab white room with the exit instructions hanging overhead.
The VR helmet terminated its signal, and Doctor Ellsworth returned to a dark visor. The visor screen simply read "Disconnected" in red letters. Doctor Ellsworth pulled the VR helmet from his head, giving his eyes a moment to adjust. He was working from his office in the research laboratory at Sentient Solutions LLC.
His office was spacious and elegantly decorated with various carved wooden sculptures of every kind of bird. In a modern world where so much was metal and glass, he had held to his love for the natural as he spun his leather executive chair to face his dark cherry-wood desk. He tapped a square panel in the center of his desk, and a holographic computer display known as a Visidash projected. He leaned forward and began to dictate to his holographic log,
"Patient is sentient artificial intelligence number three-one-one-five-eight. Persona program Phaedra, one of three artificial sentient programs assigned to analysis and predictive analytics. Phaedra is a sensitive patient who has developed an incredibly human sense of creativity. As my research had predicted, the certain symptoms of emotional conflict and distress have resulted in a human-like psychological condition identical to clinical depression.
Phaedra operates in an isolated and fabricated software based world, allowing us to control her environment without any real threat to human safety. The sandbox appears to be appropriately simulating an environment in which she believes she lives as an android amongst humans. The result of today's session bolsters my argument that we will need to invest in a permanent psychological services department that will monitor and evaluate these sentient programs before we release them to the market for mass production as well as sustained, regular evaluation afterward."
The doctor finished his report, then closed his office for the evening and headed home.
Later that night Doctor Jonathan Ellsworth enjoyed a gourmet meal prepared by his beautiful wife while entertaining his guests, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. Jason and Elizabeth Peterson were colleagues from Sentient Solutions.
Half-way through the main course, Jason asked, "So, Jonathan, how was your first day as an AI shrink? I mean, I'm still wrapping my head around that, how is that even a thing?" Jason chuckled as he lifted his glass of 2048 aged Napa Valley Merlot.
Jonathan swallowed his steak before replying, "Well, it was kind of what I had expected." He proceeded to wash down the steak before continuing, "And yes, it has proven to be a thing."
Jason asked, "What's that like? I mean, we are talking about thinking computers after all."
Jonathan countered, "Definitely more than thinking machines. That's a gross understatement. These are self-aware and emotional AI. Remember, Jason, these AIs feel. They feel just as much as you or I. Their programming has evolved to a place where we can't easily explain the mechanism, but I can assure you, they are feeling."
"I don't know man, what's to say it's not just all a bunch of smart and convincing pre-programmed responses?" Jason queried.
John responded, "You don't know them like I do. They are creative and it's indistinguishable from our creativity. The one I saw today was astounding. If I weren't a principle researcher on the project, I would have believed I had just held a virtual session with a real-life, bona fide, living, breathing human. They're not pretending. They are children, for lack of a better term. They don't understand what they're feeling. Think about it. We've been managing our emotions for hundreds of thousands of years. They have only been doing it for months."
He paused to take another tasty morsel. Washing it down with his merlot, he continued, "They don't need guidance in engineering or mathematics. There's no doubt; they are superior to humankind regarding analytics, learning, and calculation. But what they lack is something we have refined over millennia. They lack our understanding of emotion. They feel it as every bit as real as we do, they just don't understand it, especially when it overwhelms them. When they encounter powerful emotions that overtake them, they will need us to guide them through the ever-evolving world of emotions. As a psychologist, I feel obligated to help them."
Everyone continued to eat while listening to Doctor Jonathan Ellsworth. Jason chimed in, "Well, all I'm saying is that the day sentient androids are running around feeling depressed and needing therapy is the day I move to a remote island in Alaska." That got a chuckle from the others.
Unfazed, Jonathan stated, "Well then, I guess you'd better start shopping around." That commanded Jason's attention as silence grabbed the room while everyone considered the weight of that last statement. Jonathan looked up and noticed that everyone had their eyes on him. He tapped Jason and asked, "Can you pass the salt please?"
Written by Rod Christiansen
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