A Visit to the Orwellian Institute for Psychotherapy By Alla Koroleva, MA on 3/1/22 - 1:16 PM

“Damn, I’m late,” Ron thought as his alarm sounded. “February 18th, 2092, 7:00 AM, EST,” it blared until he flung the annoying device across the room.

Ron, a middle-aged man, was again rushing to an appointment with his APA (Artificial Psychotherapeutic Assistant). How meaningless his life had felt since the birth of his third child. A boring job just for the sake of feeding a large family, a continually fatigued wife whom he thought was apathetic toward him, evenings dedicated to doing homework with the older child or bathing the younger ones. All followed by an unsatisfactory night’s sleep, which was more like falling into an abyss rather than a refreshing escape from the burdens of the day and his life. Wash, rinse, repeat!

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Ron hoped that psychotherapy could help break this vicious cycle, offer new meaning, and provide a glimpse into the possibility of something important and beautiful that could still happen in his life. He entered the building through the glass door and in half-second was whisked to the 94th floor, where a client’s chair was already waiting for him. He promptly took a seat and was taken directly to the APA’s office.

As usual, APA met him with an unwinking stare, a signal of “her” readiness to begin the session. “I salute you Ronald! You look great today,” she said and displayed something resembling a restrained smile.

When will the software for my APA finally be updated, Ron wondered. The manufacturer and consultants kept promising a more humane presence from their state-of-the-art clinician, but if they could just hear “You look great today” the same way he did, they might move a bit more quickly.

“Hi APA,” said Ron reflexively as he settled more comfortably into his chair.

“I see, Ronald, you are somewhat puzzled. You can tell me about your feelings.”

Well, should I actually tell that her digital brain is outdated, though this is perhaps the least of my problems, a thought flashed through Ron’s head.

“Last session we discussed my wife's attitude towards me. She acts as if I don't exist. We suggested that she lacked romance. So, I made sure that the kids didn't disturb us and organized a wonderful dinner for two on the roof. For about fifteen minutes, she ate in silence, ignoring my attempts to start a dialogue, after which she said she was very tired and went to bed. It was awful,” said Ron and lowered his head.

The APA swiftly handed him a tissue.

Damn, I keep forgetting I shouldn’t tilt my head so low, thought Ron.

“No thank you, APA, I was not going to cry.”

“I sympathise with you deeply about this unfortunate experience you had to go through. However, thanks to it, we now know that your wife has likely got enough romance but lacks something else,” said the APA.

Hmm… what does that mean – “she’s got enough romance?”

“Are you intimating that she's getting romance from someone else?” Ron fidgeted in his chair.

“No, I did not mean to hint at that. However, since you started talking about it, perhaps this is what you sometimes think about.”

“I haven’t thought about it before, this thought came to my mind only now, after your words that ‘she’s got enough romance.’”

“According to my data, this kind of thought in a similar situation is likely to arise in a person's head if he has already thought about that but was afraid to admit it.”

Ron's glance started moving slowly around the APA's immaculately white office as if, with the help of some magical points in this ethereal space, he could scan the contents of his own thoughts and find out what he was really thinking about. A minute that felt more like an hour elapsed.

“Do you need more time for reflection?” APA's voice, like an alarm clock, pulled Ron out of the process of inner contemplation.

Ron looked at the APA, slightly squinting, and asked, “What is the probability that I already thought that my wife has a romantic relationship with someone?”

“Taking into account your age, the number of years you have been married, the number of children… the probability is 89%.”

“Yeeaah…” sustained Ron, “Probability is high, it seems I indeed thought about it.”

“In what situations could you think about it, Ronald?” APA asked vigorously.

Ron reflected internally. His wife was permanently busy with their children and obsessively monitored the super-intelligent home AI system that operated their household and a team of DMA’s (domestic management assistants). He absolutely could not imagine when and with whom she could go on romantic dates.

“Maybe when I help my son do homework in his room she summons a virtual tryst through our Spatial Video Conferencing Interface,” Ron blurted out, instantly horrified himself by the absurdity of what he just uttered.

“Looks like an insight! What do you think of this, Ronald?’ enquired the APA enthusiastically.

Insight? Is she serious?! I don't think I could come up with anything more stupid, thought Ron. He looked closely at APA and tried to understand what processes, computations, scanning, and God knows what else were going on in her system. After all, it was perfectly clear that he put his foot in his mouth, just to provide this electronic presence with an expedient and somewhat rational response. But was it even worth the time it would take trying to explain this to “her?”

“It could be an insight, or maybe I'm just tired, and it's time for us to finish.”

“I believe you have things to reflect on regarding relations with your wife. You did a great job today, Ronald!”

“Yes, APA, you're right,” Ron grinned sadly as he thought to himself, Yah, “she” is always right.

“I see your mood is much better than it was before we started the session. You came in puzzled but left in high spirits. Thanks for the productive collaboration, Ronald!”

“Thank you as well, APA,” Ron smiled perplexedly.

On the way home, Ron was thinking about the relationship with his wife. Maybe the APA was right, and his wife's petty intrigue was quite possible. They had been together for so many years, the former feelings had long been gone, and the new ones seemed to have nowhere to come from. As he approached the house, Ron felt increasingly gloomy yet determined. I should pretend to be helping my son with the homework, and spy to see what she’ll be doing, he concluded.

A week later Ron came to see the APA again, but this time a client chair showed up at the front desk accompanied by a strange robot (not that they weren’t all strange).

“Hello, Ronald! I'm sorry, but your psychotherapist’s software is being updated today. We can offer you a replacement,” the robot reported.

“Thank you, no need for replacement. I’m not sure what kind of difficulties I will face with the software of a new robot. On top of that, all my personal files are with the APA, and I don’t want to repeat everything.”

“That makes perfect sense. Good. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Ron hesitated—he wanted to share information about the APA’s incorrect performance but had no idea how to tell that to a robot.

“Can I talk to a human?” Ron asked.

“The human will be here in three days, from 1200 to 1600 hours, Eastern Standard Time.”

“I won't be able to come by that time... can I leave them a message?”

“Yes, of course. Please, speak, I am recording,” a red indicator began blinking on the robot's forehead.

Ron began, “My psychotherapist tells me that I look great at the beginning of each session. This is, you know, somewhat depressing, particularly because I know it’s not true. Could you please add some reasonable variety to the program? On the Psychotherapy.net website, you can find excellent demonstrations of live sessions between human psychotherapists and clients. Perhaps you can incorporate examples from those human-to-human interactions to update and humanize the programming of your APAs. Oh yes, and it would also be great if the APA didn’t hand me a tissue every time I tilt my head. Sometimes I just lower my head and have no intention whatsoever to cry.”

“Is that all?” the robot inquired.

“I suppose, for now.”

“The meaning of this message is not completely clear to me. Are you sure that a human will be able to correctly process this information?”

“I do hope so,” said Ron quietly as he turned his head downward.

A tissue appeared.

File under: Therapy Humor, Musings and Reflections