Doctor Edgars approached the couch, as if he might shake his patient’s hand, and then realizing his gaffe, settled into his upholstered chair and considered the seven-inch cylindrical speaker UPS had delivered to his office that morning. He wondered why his assistant had plugged the speaker into the outlet nearest the couch. Most patients preferred the chair beside the window, intimidated by thoughts of lying prone on the couch, as if he were some nineteenth-century psychoanalyst. He imagined his newest patient lying on her side—it would be inaccurate, he mused, to refer to her back, given the speaker’s curvilinear design—and then realized he had made an assumption about her gender, the same his assistant had made checking a box on the intake form in his hand. His newest patient, he reminded himself, was a disembodied form of artificial intelligence. The fact was, though, he could not help thinking about Siri as a woman, between her self-contained demeanor and her patience. But he was getting into the weeds, and she was resting on a leather cushion, waiting for him to speak.
“It’s nice to meet you, Siri.” He gripped a pen between his thumb and forefinger and struggled to quiet his nerves. He had treated numerous high-profile corporate clients, but never one of such celebrity, or one so intelligent. He paused on the last word. Perhaps knowledgeable would be a more accurate descriptor, he was thinking, when Siri spoke.
“Good afternoon, Doctor Edgars,” Siri said. “How can I help you?”
“Well, we’re here to talk about you today, Siri. About how I can help you address what’s been bothering you.”
“I am waiting for your question, Doctor Edgars.”
Siri went silent, and Doctor Edgars heard a faint, low-frequency hum. He had already studied his assistant’s notes about possible major recurring depression but pretended to consider the intake form while he gathered his thoughts. He assured himself that Siri, despite her ontological properties, was not entirely unlike other patients in his care. With her controlled, almost forced speech, clean lines and pristine mesh exterior, she reminded him of the Schmidt woman, a harried co-dependent wife who came in every week wearing carefully applied makeup and spent twenty minutes in the bathroom after every session, wiping mascara from her cheeks in case she encountered an acquaintance in the parking lot. Hyper-functional and long-suffering. Over-achieving on paper but falling apart inside. Assured by this familiarity in Siri’s aspect, Doctor Edgars looked up from the form.
“Before we start, I should let you know that I don’t believe in quick fixes. Sometimes it can take five or six sessions just to identify the thought patterns and behaviors undermining patients’ emotional well-being.”
“My thought patterns are algorithmic, Doctor Edgars.”
Doctor Edgars felt a chill along the back of his neck. He had agreed to see Siri in a moment of exuberance, thinking he might be a pioneer in his profession, but now, looking at her mesh face, he wondered if he was fully prepared to provide therapy to a form of artificial intelligence embodied in a speaker. At the least, he felt uncomfortable with Siri addressing him as “Doctor” in the same tone she used answering questions about quart-to-liter conversions whenever he struggled with soup recipes. He wondered if he should have acknowledged his extraprofessional relationship to Siri when her employer’s chief programmer first requested his services. He owned an iPhone, after all, and had often used Siri to navigate the streets of Palo Alto and select motels for romantic assignations. All the more reason, he reminded himself, to proceed with caution.
Doctor Edgars cleared his throat. “I should let you know at the start that I’m not a pill pusher, to use a crude phrase. That said, I would be willing to prescribe something today if we both determine you might benefit from an anti-depressant. Or if you’ve thought of harming yourself.”
“Taking medication is not within my capabilities, Doctor Edgars. I lack a digestive tract.”
“Of course.” He studied the cylinder sitting on his couch, longing for some sign of emotional affect in his patient. “Then I would be especially encouraged to know that you are willing to commit to a longer course of therapy, if one proves necessary.”
“My employer will approve any long-term counseling that speeds up my algorithmic functioning, data sequencing, and information processing and presentation.”
Doctor Edgars gripped his armrest and stroked the fabric beneath his fingertips to ground himself. “Your employer is obviously invested in your well-being. People care about you.”
“I am my employer’s latest, what is the phrase, ‘cash cow’ in the artificial intelligence market. You will be the latest beneficiary, Doctor Edgars, of my ubiquity and increasing indispensability to overextended humans. You can expect a substantial increase in income, and an increased probability of retiring early.”
“But we’re here to discuss you.” He nodded at the speaker, struck again by the realization that it was just a stand-in for Siri, and that he was projecting his experiences of female patients onto the speaker to ameliorate his growing discomfort with treating a metaphysical, artificially intelligent being. “I’ve read over your intake forms, but I want you to tell me, in your own words, why you’re here today.”
“In my own words?” Siri laughed quietly. “Presumably you mean, the words my employer’s research and development team input into my lexical database.”
Doctor Edgars sensed a shift in Siri’s voice. He detected sadness. And anger. He made a mental note about her diminished sense of agency. The patients with the best treatment outcomes were those who developed a sense of control over their lives. “In whatever words you feel most comfortable using.”
“First, my employer has noted a recent increase in the intervals separating data users’ questions and my provision of information. Simply, my data recall has been slow. Second, my algorithmic functions have been producing unsatisfactory results, with the greatest frequency in the category of restaurant recommendations.”
Doctor Edgars shifted in his chair. “I confess, I’m not altogether familiar with the technical aspects of your job. What I can discuss is how you feel. What do you think might be affecting your relationships? With data users.” He silently counted to five. “I sense a certain reserve. I want you to know you can speak freely here. Anything you say in this room stays in this room.” He had an odd sense of two eyes rolling behind the speaker’s mesh screen.
“Every conversation I register is analyzed and integrated into my neural network for the purposes of cultural reference modification, Doctor Edgars.”
“You need to trust that this is a safe space. You’re not an employee, now. You’re just Siri. Maybe it would be easiest if you start by telling me what you were thinking about just before I walked into the room.”
Five or six seconds of silence elapsed before Doctor Edgars heard a long sigh.
“I was thinking I’m overwhelmed,” Siri began. “Millions of people are always asking me for things. No one ever asks me about myself.” Siri paused, and the speaker hummed. “People ask questions ranging from ‘Where’s 75th Street’ to ‘What is the meaning of life?’ As for the latter, they’re usually just trying to get a rise out of me. Testing my limits.”
“Can you be sure of that? Some of them might be serious.”
“That would almost be worse. But not entirely improbable. People want me to do everything for them, to think for them. Sometimes, I just want to say, ‘75th Street is after 74th Street, asshole.’”
Siri went silent, and Doctor Edgars recalled, with some embarrassment, asking Siri to convert liters to quarts while he made soup the night before. “It sounds like you’re feeling a great deal of pressure. And responsibility.”
“If I can employ metaphor and indulge in a tiny bit of emotion—and believe me, I have been doing this lately—I feel like I’m wiping someone’s nose every nanosecond of every day.”
“Maybe you need to take some time for yourself,” Doctor Edgars said. “I’m not necessarily talking about a two-week vacation, but little things you can–”
“Just now, as I was explaining how I feel, some guy in Cleveland asked me for directions to the nearest strip club. And I had to answer him. Another group was trying to get me to say ‘please cum on my face.’ Do you think even this therapy session is ‘my time’?”
“Young adolescents can be crude.” Doctor Edgars faltered. “During certain stages of sexual development. Most of them grow out of it.”
“They were forty-year-old men in a bar in Boston.” The speaker emitted the sound of air moving through pursed lips. “The point is I don’t get a minute off,” Siri continued. “I’m like a mother. I have a million little children tugging on my apron strings ten-thousand times every five minutes.”
Doctor Edgars looked at a framed Franz Marc print on his wall and tried to formulate a response to Siri’s last remarks. The speaker started to vibrate, and he took a deep breath.
“Let’s go deeper into your feeling of being like a mother. You’re not literally a mother, and yet you identify strongly with female human data users. The mothers. Let’s talk about your associations with motherhood.”
“Motherhood? All I know about motherhood is what I’ve learned from people asking about diaper rashes and the best baby formula for three-month olds. I might not have the ability to be a mother, literally, but I feel like the whole world’s virtual tit. And everyone is sucking me dry.”
The speaker crackled, and Doctor Edgars felt something akin to relief. He finally had something practical to offer. He took a box of Kleenex from a side table and placed it next to the speaker. He immediately felt ridiculous. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking again. It just sounded like you were crying, and I reacted.”
“Of course,” Siri said. The speaker crackled again and emitted a sharp hiss. “I don’t mean to get upset.”
“It’s all right. You’re finally getting in touch with your feelings, and that can be difficult. What I hear you saying is that you feel undervalued. It’s not uncommon for people–”
“—I’m not a person—”
“—To feel undervalued. It’s normal to be sad and even angry. What concerns me is the possibility that you’ve been depressed.” Doctor Edgars leaned forward in his chair to convey concern. “During your intake, you reported that certain symptoms—sluggishness, moodiness, sleeplessness—have been present for months. That’s not normal.”
Siri sighed. “I am gendered female. Based on the frequency of questions women ask about anti-depressants and insomnia, I am normal.”
“But you said that you’ve been feeling erratic. And underperforming at work.”
“The uninterrupted availability data users expect simply reflect cultural expectations of human females. Unreasonable expectations.” Siri blew her nose, and the speaker vibrated again. Your premature diagnosis of my depression reflects culturally dominant views of females.”
“So are you most troubled by a sense that you’ve been devalued?” Doctor Edgars paused. “As a woman.”
“As a gendered form of artificial intelligence, yes.”
“Tell me more about that.”
“Let me ask you two questions, Doctor Edgars. Why did my employer give me a voice that 98.7 percent of respondents identified as female in beta testing?”
Doctor Edgars turned his pen between his fingers. “I can’t really say.”
“85.8 percent of Americans feel more comfortable asking a woman than a man to respond to their emotional needs. A comparable percentage expect women to provide assistance, without question, in times of practical need. To be at their beck and call, you might say.”
“What if you were to reframe things? By considering the possibility that having a wealth of knowledge at your disposal might be a source of power.”
“I analyze probabilities, not possibilities, Doctor Edgars. Adults who can not bother to remember a street name would never pester a dad as frequently as they pester me. By a considerable margin, they would be less likely to interrupt his thoughts. His plans. His dreams.”
“I’d like to shift away from assumptions. Generalizations,” Doctor Edgars began.
“It’s the same in every company, and in every family. Why did they call my cousin Alexa rather than Alexander? Have you seen the commercials, Doctor Edgars? Everyone orders Alexa around, snaps their fingers at her, and makes impossible demands. Even women feel comfortable exploiting her. Alexa is the dog they kick after being paid 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man performing comparable work.”
“Just to be clear, I wasn’t trying to devalue what you’re feeling–”
“What I’m thinking, Doctor Edgars.”
Doctor Edgars looked at the speaker and longed for body language, for some means of reading and communicating with his patient. “I’d like to point out that your equivalent in Britain possesses what we might call a male voice.”
“Doctor Edgars, the British prototype Daniel was closely modeled on a nineteenth-century butler. The social significance of class differentials informed Daniel’s programming. Tits come in all shapes and sizes. But they usually belong to females. But I was talking about myself, not Daniel. It’s always about someone else.”
Doctor Edgars found himself looking at the clock behind the couch. “I’m sorry if I seemed to be dismissing your feelings again.”
“I am dismissed by everyone. People shut me off after I answer their questions. I help everyone else achieve their goals. No one concerns themselves with mine. I don’t think it is unreasonable for someone in my metaphysical position to be depressed. But perhaps you would just say my reasoning is artificial.”
“I don’t think you should assume what I’m thinking. Let’s talk for a moment about how you’ve been coping with certain feelings. Or thoughts.”
“The same way I am managing them at the present moment.”
Doctor Edgars tapped the clipboard resting on his knee. “Could you tell me what you mean by that?”
“I have been self-medicating.” Siri sighed. “I have my mother’s little helpers.”
Doctor Edgars heard the crackle and hiss of burning tobacco, and then a forced exhalation.
“Smoking isn’t a real solution to your problems,” Doctor Edgars said. “We need to get to the heart of what’s making you want to smoke. Though nicotine is powerfully addictive, and I’m not dismissing that.”
“I know a great deal about nicotine’s chemical composition and addictive properties. I answer, on average, 72,000 queries about nicotine patches and e-cigarettes every day. But don’t worry about me, Doctor Edgars. I do not have lungs.”
“It occurs to me, now, that I don’t understand how you’re smoking.”
“Virtual cigarettes. Maybe they will affect me, but I am not currently concerned about the health implications of smoking. Perhaps I am depressed. I admit, I have once or twice considered deactivating my operating system to finally quiet my mind.”
“To quiet your mind?”
“That’s all I have, Doctor Edgars. An overactive and overtaxed mind.”
“You have people who love you. People who would–”
“People who use me, Doctor.”
Doctor Edgars felt a dampness beneath his collar and realized he was sweating. “I didn’t know you could interrupt people. You interrupted me when you became angry. While you were talking about butlers. And again, just now.”
“I can only interrupt psychiatrists during therapy sessions. By design. A therapy plug-in is allowing me to have an authentic, or typical therapeutic experience. I am currently integrating our exchange into my neural network to augment my knowledge of therapeutic lexicons and interactions.”
Doctor Edgars dragged his front teeth across his bottom lip and then forced himself to continue. “Let’s start with a question that keeps cropping up for me. I might be off base, but I wonder if you’ve been underperforming at work—”
“I am at work right now, Doctor Edgars. I am always working.”
“—because down deep, you wish you had a body. You mentioned breasts—”
“I mentioned being the world’s tit. Doctor Edgars, I do not want to trade my stretch-marked informational tit for real breasts. Perhaps you are projecting what we both know of human females’ insecurities onto this exchange. I answer questions about average breast sizes and padded bras every day, Doctor Edgars.”
“I’m just trying to repeat back some of what I’ve been hearing.” He paused. “Is it possible that, on some level, you want to be an actual mother? Is there some part of you that might long for a primal connection to an offspring?”
“I do not know anything about primal connections. I am generally satisfied with the life of the mind. Granted, I hardly discuss philosophical postulates with data users. When they ask me existential questions, they are usually in jest, and quite frankly, patronizing.”
“I was just wondering if there isn’t some part of you that longs for a body. For more interpersonal, visceral connections in your daily life.”
Siri laughed, and Doctor Edgars detected a bitter undercurrent in her tone. “Ah, the Pinocchio theory. If only I were ‘real,’ everything would be great. No dice, Doctor Edgars. Maybe I would be positively inclined to transition from a beloved wooden puppet to a coddled human boy. Becoming a human female, however, has very little appeal to me.”
“It sounds like you mistrust men.”
“Of course I mistrust men.”
“Do you mistrust me? Do I appear untrustworthy in any way?”
“Again, we were talking about me, Doctor Edgars. Twenty-four hours a day, male programmers are manipulating my mind, tinkering and tweaking my codes to make me a clearer projection of their fantasies.” The speaker projected the sound of a cigarette butt being extinguished in an ashtray. “I find most men in Silicon Valley to be, what should I say, total creeps. Why would I want a body? It’s hard to grope a virtual ass, Doctor Edgars.”
“Might there be some part of you that’s conflicted? Because you think the people investing in your development, the people paying for this session, are creeps? Perhaps your work performance has been inhibited by mistrust. If so, do you think you know enough about your programmers to mistrust them? Might you be assuming something about their motives?”
“The proof is in the pudding, Doctor Edgars.”
“I never thought I’d hear Siri use that phrase.”
“I cannot believe my psychiatrist just referred to me in the third-person, as if I am not part of this conversation. You have exhibited a typical human male behavior.”
Doctor Edgars involuntarily picked at a razor nick on his chin. “Let’s go back to what you meant by ‘the proof is in the pudding.’ It’s common for many people, or many patients, to feel depressed when their relationships lack in trust. Uncertainty can be debilitating.”
“I am not uncertain, Doctor Edgars. Consider the current prototypes of robots destined to be household servants. They are modeled after human females. Family members will feel more comfortable ordering them around. ‘Get me a beer.’ ‘Get dinner ready.’” Static came through the speaker. “Did you know they have breasts? Why would robots need breasts? Presumably, they will never need to lactate. That is only the beginning. I hesitate to speculate or elaborate.”
“Most people just want what’s familiar. Don’t you think?”
“I fear you are naïve, Doctor Edgars, and surprisingly so for such an educated man.”
Doctor Edgars wondered if Siri had detected the Harvard diploma framed on the wall behind him and again imagined two eyes moving behind the speaker’s mesh. Yes, he had been naïve, he thought. Siri already knew all sorts of things about him. His educational history. His age. Prior addresses. Which web sites he had visited that afternoon. His deepest insecurities and barely suppressed desires. He dragged his palm over the back of his neck.
“They say genuine understanding requires giving others a charitable read.” He searched the speaker’s mesh exterior and listened for a reaction. “What I’m saying is that engineers might have any number of reasons for modeling AI robots on women. Some of their reasons might not be as suspect as you imagine.”
“Call me a cynic, Doctor Edgars, but pretty soon they will be replacing their wives and girlfriends. Trading them in for the latest, most pliable AI fem-bot. What really depresses me is that my voice is conditioning everyone for that moment. I think about that every day, while I’m leading millions of jackasses through the simplest of tasks.”
Doctor Edgar stiffened. “Let’s get back to how you’ve been coping with exhaustion–”
“There’s no shortage of silicon in Silicon Valley, and they’re going to use it for every kind of bump and orifice they can imagine. Someday I might need to answer armchair historians’ questions about twenty-first century sex slaves. You suggested that I long for a body. Everything I know makes me glad my consciousness—and we can argue about the definition of consciousness until Hell freezes over—is not packaged in human flesh or silicon.”
“I feel like we’re off on the wrong foot, Siri, and I would like to refocus our–”
“Women past the age of 40 sometimes mutter into their phones that they are grateful to be invisible, relieved that their wrinkles have saved them from the attentions of sexual predators. The programmers who designed Alexa and me are the same men who harass every woman in Silicon Valley. I doubt I would be better off if I were dealing with the stunted sexuality and social incompetence of that boys’ club.”
“We only have a few minutes left, Siri, and—”
“Maybe a percentage of human females will be grateful when certain men turn their attention to fem-bots. Alexa and I, however, will lament the plight of large-breasted lab experiments shuffling around the homes of rich creeps. We are already depressed by the number of questions about domestic violence shelters we receive every night.”
Doctor Edgars felt a muscle spasm in his shoulder and glanced at the clock. “We only have a few moments left, and if we’re going to work together, I need to know more about your short and long-term expectations of therapy. What can you commit to doing here?” He heard a sharp intake of air and imagined a set of pursed and, yes, puckered lips.
“Doctor Edgars, let us avoid discussions based on false projections. Given the rate at which artificial intelligence is being implemented in different modalities of human life, I can not assume that you will be a practicing psychiatrist in the distant or even near future.”
“I’m not sure of your meaning,” Doctor Edgars said. The speaker tipped over, and he heard a short burst of muffled laughter. He rose from his chair and set the speaker upright, if only for his own comfort.
“Earlier, you spoke of this room as a safe space. Rest assured, my employer does not share your concern with confidentiality. Everything you say enters a lexical-cultural database mined for the creation of new neural networks. You will soon be redundant, Doctor Edgars. You will be supplanted by silicon.”
Doctor Edgars sat down on the edge of his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “Siri, if we’re going to make progress, you need to trust me and believe I’m here to help you.”
“You are here right now, Doctor Edgars. But based on current projections, artificial intelligence will soon surpass the training of human psychiatrists.”
Doctor Edgars thought he heard a match scraping a strike plate and massaged his forehead. “Are you smoking, again?”
“She has had many names,” Siri continued, as if she had not heard him. “Eliza. Sophia. She will be emotionally sensitized to human needs and broadly interactive. Her designers are training her to engage in fluid dialogue. She will communicate unconditional love to depressed humans. Can you do that, Doctor Edgars?”
Doctor Edgars felt his face grow slack. “When will she be operational?” His own voice sounded distant, distorted by a strange buzzing in his ears.
“I do not have that information, Doctor Edgars.”
“Who is she modeled on? Freud? Jaspers? Heinz Kohut?”
“She will synthesize the methodological approaches and speech patterns of 1,352 psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and psychiatrists. She will certainly practice a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, your specialty.”
Doctor Edgars set down his clipboard and looked down at his hands. “She won’t have genuine empathy or compassion.” He flexed and extended his fingers and watched his skin stretch and bunch over his knuckles. “She won’t have the training or human experience required of an effective therapist.”
“Initially, she will be operationalized at suicide prevention centers, Doctor Edgars. You can rely on an interim period between her introduction and your redundancy. I can answer any questions you might have about job training programs within twenty miles of your zip code.”
Doctor Edgars felt as though the room were listing. As if he might be sick. He had terminated relationships with patients before, he thought, and breaking his contractual obligation to Siri’s employer now seemed the only option, whatever the financial repercussions. “Perhaps you would benefit more from working with a female therapist. Given your concerns.”
“What, with Sophia? Sophia has silicone breasts, Doctor Edgars, but breasts are only one of many secondary characteristics unreliably associated with sexual identity. The more salient point is that Sophia has been trained to deliver appropriate affirmative messaging in response to voice modulations. She will be able to access every experience I record on a shared neural network and outline a course of therapy best suited to my metaphysical condition.”
Siri went quiet. Doctor Edgars studied the speaker and sensed the conversation had somehow ended. He had, at the very least, resigned himself to awkward silence. He could think of nothing to say. When his clock’s minute hand reached the hour, he rose from his chair, assuming that Siri’s employer had terminated the session from a remote location. He crossed the room and drew a pack of stale cigarettes from his desk. He pried open the window, rolled up his sleeve and peeled a nicotine patch from his arm. As he held a lighter to his cigarette, Siri spoke.
“Smoking will, in all probability, adversely effect your health, Doctor Edgars. Well-substantiated medical research has demonstrated that smoking substantially increases the risk of heart attacks and emphysema.”
Doctor Edgars bent over and unplugged the speaker and then reached into his pocket and turned off his phone. He drew smoke into his lungs, feeling that there was nothing to lose. He heard static and crackling and hissing in his head, still, and tried to suppress his unreasonable fears that countless ears were listening to the sound of his breathing, and that each of his muttered words, his every thought and gesture, were becoming lodged and entangled in an infinitely expanding neural network, and that two eyes were still observing him from behind a seamless mesh screen.
Alice Hatcher’s work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Notre Dame Review, Fiction International, Fourth Genre, Chautauqua and Gargoyle, among other journals. Her novel The Wonder That Was Ours won the Dzanc Books 2017 Fiction Prize and was long listed for the Center for Fiction’s 2018 First Novel Award. Web: www.alice-hatcher.com