“Do you know Paul, I’m really not sure about this, I’ve honestly been doing OK these last few weeks” He’d tried for certainty but even he could hear the hesitation in his voice; he hadn’t been doing OK at all but was this really the answer?
“Look mate” said Paul, gently squeezing his best friend’s shoulder “you need to talk and, more importantly, you need someone to listen. Please trust me, this is cutting edge in the field of psychology and I should know, right?” He grinned and nudged the man so terribly kind but deeply unwilling to bare his soul. He’d been treating Dave for many months and, close as they were, he could not break down the barriers that were preventing his friend from moving on with his life. Added to that, Paul felt that their sessions were beginning to put a strain on their relationship and he wasn’t prepared to take that risk; he was sure that this was the answer.
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right but why would I want to talk to a machine when I have my friends?” Actually Dave wasn’t sure how many friends he had left these days, what could he contribute to a party or a night out? He was 31 and should be out and about enjoying life but how could he without Sammy and their daughter?
“They’re not machines mate” Paul’s voice interrupted his morbid reflection “they’re Empabots and they were specifically designed to help people caught in emotional loops. Traditional psychologists, however well trained, however well-meaning cannot truly empathise with their clients and, sometimes, that is the only thing that will actually help them; feeling as though someone genuinely understands what they’re going through. The Empabots have been programmed to ’empathise'”
“How can they” Dave said, flatly “they don’t have feelings or experiences, they’re machines for christ’s sake” He was beginning to regret coming here today, he loved his best friend but wasn’t he just looking for an easy out? He’d tried to open up to Paul but, although he said all the things that he supposed people thought they should say, none of it made any difference and he felt his friend’s growing impatience.
“They’re not toasters Dave!” Paul was desperate to elicit a smile but his attempt at humour fell on deaf ears; when was the last time that Dave had smiled? He ploughed on “This is next level artificial intelligence my friend. The Empabots have been fed millions of scenarios and have been programmed to ‘feel’ the corresponding emotions. They don’t have solutions for all the negative emotions that are causing people to suffer, they offer understanding in its purest form” Paul had been brought on board with this programme by a colleague that he’d first met at Oxford and what he’d seen so far had deeply impressed him. Emotional loops were a massive challenge for everyone in his profession as having feelings about feelings, as was often the case with grief, could be without limit; the cycle just went on and on and the patient continued to suffer.
“Why don’t you just watch an Empabot at work and then you can decide for yourself if it’s something you want to try” Paul knew that it wasn’t strictly ethical but whatever patient he selected wouldn’t be aware that he or she were under observation. They both sat down in front of a two way mirror which offered an excellent view into a small, comfortable room. A woman and a man were in there, sitting opposite each other. The woman was listening intently, her face a reflection of the emotion that seemed to be pouring out of the man in front of her.
“There’s something I don’t get” Dave had turned to face his friend and was actually looking him in the eye which was something that happened rarely these days. The tragedy that he’d suffered had caused deep lines to form around his gentle brown eyes and he looked profoundly tired.
“What’s that mate?” Paul was happy to answer any question. At least it seemed as though Dave were taking an interest.
“What will happen to you? If these ‘bots’ start doing your job, what will you do?” There was a genuine concern in his voice
“Well, one they’re not used to treat all conditions so they won’t ‘take over’ but a number of us, who are recognised as experts in our fields, have been offered contracts by the military. With the war still going on there are too many soldiers returning from battle, with PTSD, who are just falling through the cracks and turning to drink, drugs and crime and it’s a big problem for the authorities. I’ll be one of many who will help soldiers adjust back to civilian life in the 3 months before they’re discharged” He didn’t add that the contract he’d been offered was extremely lucrative or that the new generation of anti-psychotic drugs would make his job pretty straightforward. In the coming weeks he knew that he would need both money and time.
“Oh, that’s good” Dave had lost his mildly concerned expression and Paul thought that his face would quickly revert back to its normal mask of quiet despair so he was surprised at hearing another question
“What do they think, these Empabots? What do they think about this job they’ve been given?” Dave wasn’t looking at his friend any longer but watching the scene being played out before him in the little room. The man was sobbing uncontrollably and all his pain appeared to be etched on the features of the woman facing him. Dave had, by now, realised that she was an Empabot but, even knowing she was a machine, he was beginning to feel sorry for her.
“They’re not programmed to think per se” said Paul. He was frowning as he tried to think of a simple way to express the science. “They are programmed to feel. Humans attach feeling to thought and it’s virtually impossible for us to have one without the other. The depression that effects you now, for example, is a feeling attached to the thought of their loss and the guilt is a feeling attached to the thought that you are to blame. An Empabot has not had the experiences and the attached thoughts needed to generate feelings but they do have artificial ‘memories’ and, obviously, they learn to ‘feel’ more, the more time that they spend with patients”
“So all they have is pain, without true origin, without reason?” Dave was watching the female Empabot intently, she seemed to be shrinking somehow, folding in on herself as she listened to the pathetic litany of the desperate man before her.
“Well, yes, I suppose you could put it like that” Paul was not comfortable with this question as it implied a level of suffering from the perspective of the Empabots that simply wasn’t there “But remember Dave, they’re AI, not real people”
“Look what it’s doing to her Paul, just look” Dave had not moved his gaze from the Empabot; something was breaking inside her as he watched. She was taking on all the pain of the human before her. “How many times a day will she go through this?”
“She’s not ‘going through’ something Dave, it’s a treatment and she will see 6 to 8 patients a day” He wasn’t sure where his friend was going with this but he was mentally searching for a change of subject
“6 or 8 times a day, every day, she will take on more and more pain? She will feel the pain of the people she sees all day and every day? Is that it? Is that what you’ve created here Paul? An endless cycle of pain?” Dave’s face was both tortured and incredulous
“Well, I didn’t create them mate, I mean, I helped a bit along the way but it wasn’t me who came up with it” Paul held his hands up in front of his chest as if to ward off his friend’s anger.
The previous patient had left the little room and the Empabot appeared exhausted, shoulders slumped as if carrying the weight of the world, eyes sunken and limbs heavy.
‘I know that feeling’ thought Dave.
As he watched the outer door opened slowly and another patient sidled into the room looking lost and apprehensive. The Empabot roused herself from her apathy and greeted the girl with an understanding smile and a small hand gesture which indicated she should sit. Her face was, once again, a mask of pure empathy and, in minutes, the girl was opening up to her like a flower to the sun. She began to talk and the subtle lines of stress and cracks of pain once again distorted the Empabot’s fine features.
‘I can’t watch this’ Dave thought ‘she is in pain and it will never stop. All the negative emotions and feelings that people bring to her will stay locked inside going round and round and………’ He felt tears spring to his eyes, unbidden and he turned to Paul
“That’s what I’ve been doing isn’t it?”
‘At last’ Paul thought to himself. “Yes my friend, that’s what you’ve been doing”
“For 10 years this pain has been going round and round inside me, getting worse and worse, I can see now what I’ve been doing but…….” His voice broke and Paul knew what he would say next
“It wasn’t your fault Dave” His voice was gentle but he grasped Dave firmly by both shoulders as he spoke “Yes, you were driving but no-one could have avoided that accident, even the scene investigators said that. It was obvious to everyone that you did everything you could to prevent the crash”
“It wasn’t my fault” It was said in a whisper but, for Paul, it was a start. His plan had been elaborate to say the least but, if his friend was saved, it had all been worth it. He loved this man but, it was his professional judgement that Dave needed to feel someone else’s pain before he could begin to heal his own. Somewhere along the line, immersed in his own suffering, he had lost the ability to empathise and remained caught in his emotional loop. Paul would pay the actress well, her portrayal of an Empabot had been inspired…….
I have no idea where this story came from but I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it