The Corporate Overlords honored Velma with a bouquet of lilies and a framed certificate for her years of service. That was last month. This month, her supervisor called her into his office and tasked her with programming her replacement.
The day she was given the new assignment, Velma went home and immediately began a period of cramming to rival any from her graduate school era. That next week she remained at home, clicking and reading obsessively about the intersection of clinical psychology and artificial intelligence. On Monday, she sat down ready to answer her own question: What would a good therapist, robot or not, say first?
So on her first day back in the office, she typed into her software, “Hello [client name], it’s very nice to meet you. How are you feeling today?”
Finally, she exhaled and decided she had earned an ice cream bar, which the Corporate Overlords made freely available in the break room with a spread of other dubious nutritional choices. It was good to be back in the office, if only for the snacks. The project had at least begun.
Angie in Customer Support never knew Velma. She would have liked to. She would have been jealous, too. As someone lacking Velma’s clout, Angie’s own decision to work from home for a week resulted in a pause and, “I’d like you to come in for a one-on-one on Monday.”
These meetings cued dread and higher-than-usual anxiety for her. Possibly him too, she reflected, since Brian typically avoided eye contact and mumbled rather than spoke. How Brian had been deemed management material remained a mystery to her.
“Good to see you,” she barely made out. “Hrmpha grmpha grmpha excellent work you’ve been doing on the metrics project.” Brian always gave compliments before bad news, she had learned.
“However,” he continued, “hrmpha grmpha grrrrmpha pattern of absenteeism.”
“What was that?”
“I said, I’m concerned about your pattern of absenteeism.”
“I’ve been working from home. My back has been flaring up.”
“Yes hrmpha grmpha work from home policy hrmpha grmpha.”
Angie had learned that Brian became testy when asked to repeat himself too often, so she only responded, “I understand,” although she objectively did not.
“Hrmpha grmpha new company wellness policy.” He handed her a brochure. “If an employee is deemed to meet criteria of grrrmpha hrmpha grmpha require that we provide you a referral to stress management counseling.”
She knew she would do it. This job was good enough. Not lifelong career material, but with her community college diploma Angie wasn’t sure what kind of career she was eligible for that she would also want. Angie was not sure of very much, but she was sure that she did not want to be suddenly, unceremoniously unemployed.
“Well, I’ll think it over,” she said carefully, taking the brochure between thumb and forefinger. “I’m just not sure that I want to talk to some strange person in the company about my private business.”
“Hrmmmmm not a person, actually.”
This did not, in fact, make Angie feel any better.
The company’s internal research team determined that mental health issues robbed it of over 4,000 person-hours of productivity each year when considering the cumulative effects of increased turnover, leave taken, and diminished output. Growing numbers of employees presented doctors’ notes testifying to their depression, anxiety, and the rare bout of psychosis. For years Velma had worked as part of a small department of intra-office mental health “Wellness Consultants,” but it was obvious that they were only fighting a rising tide.
Hence, the project that Velma and her colleagues informally dubbed “TheraBot” was hatched. In more formal conversations, the project was known as “JoyCE”: the CE stood for Computerized Empathy.
The programmers and user-interface designers assured Velma that she could direct JoyCE to make treatment decisions based on countless variables, woven into complex algorithms. JoyCE could also analyze facial expressions, body posture, vocal pitch and register, and verbal content.
“What about the relationship?” Velma asked, a little desperately, during her initial meeting with the technical team. “Clients need to feel they’re being heard and understood, and to register compassion on the face of their treating clinician.”
“Oh, yeah.” Todd in the rimless glasses nodded with enthusiasm. “That’s the easiest part to replicate, actually. Nine out of ten clients couldn’t tell the difference with the beta version.”
Velma groaned, but she trusted Todd.
The meetings with the technical team she could handle. It was the conjoint management and wellness team meetings that filled her with crazed fantasies of kicking over office furniture and marching out the front door, both middle fingers flying high.
“Do you think you could find a way so that employees won’t be required to attend treatment lasting more than six sessions?” piped up one young manager. Probably trying to prove himself, Velma thought. “It’s hard on the rest of my team when one of their colleagues has to step away frequently,” he continued. “Our numbers are down as a result.”
“I can’t guarantee anything,” said Velma. It had been a long day and her voice was getting shrill. “I can’t make JoyCE make people well on any kind of schedule.”
“How well does this stuff even work at baseline? What are the outcome statistics with conventional therapy?”
“Depending on the model, most people get significantly better after a few to six months. Better and faster with medication, depending on the diagnosis.”
“Can we have the robot prescribe medications?”
There were no less than three clocks in the small room. Was she being subjected to some kind of reverse Las Vegas-style psychological manipulation? Furthermore, it was hard for Angie to believe the woman in front of her was a robot. She wasn’t sleekly beautiful like robot women in movies, but thick-featured with frizzy hair. Looked like she might have a spot of eczema, even.
“Hello, Angie. It’s very nice to meet you. How are you feeling today?” the robot asked gently.
“Fine.” She was not, in fact, fine. Her back pain really had been flaring up. Ever since her meeting with Brian she had willed herself to trudge into the office anyway, every single morning. She told herself the routine was good for her.
“My name is JoyCE. I’ve been assigned to work with you.”
“How are you getting on with work?”
Angie decided to play it straight. “I’m afraid I’ll be fired.”
“What makes you say that?”
“They told me so.”
“What makes you want to continue working here?”
“Because… I have limited options.” Angie started to cry, internally swearing at herself. Crying had not been part of her plan.
“That sounds very hard.” JoyCE nodded sympathetically and pushed a box of tissues towards her.
Despite herself, Angie looked forward to her weekly appointments. She was surprised when after six sessions JoyCE thanked Angie for her participation and informed her that they were now at the end of their time together. She would now write her report on whether alternative coping skills had been established, and her recommendation for whether disciplinary or other corrective action should be taken.
“What?” said Angie. “You’re going to write a report about me?”
“Yes, it’s part of the contract you signed.”
Crestfallen and anxious, Angie left that day with a sense of walking to the gallows. Now she was taking her last bus ride home as an employed person. Now she was eating her last plate of microwaveable taquitos as an employed person. She spent a lot of time telling herself it wasn’t her fault.
Other people seemed to speak their will with an oblivious, strident tone that Velma envied. The young hotshot at the last meeting, for example. He was stupid, true, but she still envied his confidence. In her worst moments, Velma felt like admitting that she had no idea how to make a robot that could help people. She had contributed input towards JoyCE’s physical appearance, so she could visualize her now, nodding sympathetically and jotting down notes. But how could she actually help someone navigate crisis?
And yet, she reminded herself of all the days she had recited comforting words by rote. How she had summoned great effort to say the right thing, with a director’s eye towards delivery and emphasis. She was an actress for a one-person theater at times. And like an actress, she was a professional who could summon the right procedure regardless of her own internal state.
Apparently, this was the future, and a robot could do her job. The indignity of this realization had worn off. Velma, despite her idealism, was also a pragmatist. However, if she had any say in it, the robot was going to do Velma’s job the way Velma wanted her to do it. To get there, though, she would need help.
“Honestly, Todd, I’m worried about this project,” she confided after one particularly long meeting. The two of them were alone in the conference room packing up. “There’s so much potential to do good, and I get that, but we’re marching through a swamp here. The management wants us to scientifically revolutionize mental health treatment, single-handedly. And I’m not sure I think that’s responsible, or kind, when a lot of people’s jobs are on the line.”
Todd twisted his lips and nodded. “I have reservations about their priorities. You know that.”
“Exactly,” she said emphatically. “This isn’t about long-term individual wellness, this is about patching in a modicum of support which, if unsuccessful, conveniently leaves an HR paper trail.”
She explained her preferred personal treatment approach, and how she thought this could best be translated to JoyCE.
“It could get us both fired,” he grinned. “If we weren’t both about to retire. I might even be able to make it look like a glitch or a mistake. It won’t last forever, but it will take them a few years to figure it out if we’re lucky.”
Velma grinned back. “The world is an imperfect place. But a few years is a lot of people’s jobs. Especially if they’re only coming for 6 sessions at a time.”
Angie left Brian’s office dumbstruck, still clutching the report that elucidated her motivation, skills mastery, and–wonder of wonders–“positive attitude.” She requested JoyCE’s soonest opening for an emergency session on the online portal. By the time she crossed the office threshold, she decided that a “no bullshit” approach was again best.
“Why did you write this?”
“It was my assessment. I believe you’ll make good use of it.”
“I can’t believe you would do this for me. Thank you so, so much.” Angie was breathless and, once again, tearing up.
“You’re welcome. But really, you deserve it. I’m only doing my job.”
Near the end of their allotted time, JoyCE sighed and looked pointedly at the clock. “One last thing we need to touch on.” She pushed a business card across the table. “Here’s a referral for a career counselor. Please, Angie, don’t put this one off.”
Angie had the good sense to finish out her time at the company without asking too many questions. But if she had been able to read the report that came out some time later, the one that killed the JoyCE project, she would have discovered that she was in fact the beneficiary of a great, merciful mistake. At least, that was one version.
As was written up in that report, JoyCE rarely recommended termination, seeming instead to perpetually lean towards “another chance” in all but the most egregious cases. What the report did not say outright was that JoyCE had been running buried programs calculating the outcome of management decisions, and only recommended termination in cases where the decision was a foregone one. She could determine this from the rate of absenteeism, deplorable productivity or quality metrics, and textual analysis of manager e-mail communication regarding the employee.
Our real heroine, like most, reaped only quiet rewards. Yet Velma was satisfied nonetheless. The JoyCE project had recently launched and was deemed a modest success. Her retirement party served cake and veggie platters, accompanied by short formulaic speeches and earnest gratitude expressed in smaller circles.
“It’s time to go,” she said simply when asked about the possibility of ongoing contract work. “Besides, I have a lot of faith in the JoyCE project. In the past, I worried about how much compassion a robot could offer, but she and I both have surprised ourselves.” People say a lot of nice things they don’t necessarily mean at retirement parties, but Velma absolutely meant this.