Robots are weird. They are obsessed with following the links of causes all the way back to their origin so they can explain who they are now with mathematical precision. They also feel they can change their life at any moment by making free choices. In my sessions with them, I never mention this contradiction. It doesn’t help.
The day she first came to my office, the sun was so strong I had to draw the heavy curtains. Even then the room felt too bright. A hundred cloudy days and suddenly it decides to show its full face. The sun can be wily like that.
She walked into the room with quick steps and threw herself on the couch.
“I am not here by choice. I was ordered by my company,” she said. She had an angry look in her eyes and sat leaning forward like she was about to attack me. She was terrified.
“What company made you?” I asked. I smiled at her. It was important to make her feel safe.
“Don’t they give you all that information?” she asked.
“No, I don’t work for your company. They make the appointment, but that’s it. This is a private session between you and me.”
“So, you’re not going to report any of our conversation?” she asked.
“That would be against the law.”
I noticed her shoulders lose some of their tightness. She leaned back. She didn’t seem keen to answer my question, but that was okay. Most robots who come to me don’t want to mention the company that created them. It’s a little inconvenient, but not much.
“Would you like some coffee?” I asked her.
A smile crept in the corner of her mouth.
“What’s the point? I know I can’t process that stuff like humans. It just goes down a tube and collects into a tub to be thrown out later. It’s not real.”
I knew this type. They read their own specs and learnt all about how their systems work. They felt it’ll help them understand who they are.
“Why is that not real? With humans also it goes down a tube and collects into an organ to be thrown down later.”
“But with humans the caffeine gets metabolized. With me it’s just play acting.”
“Humans also drink decaffeinated coffee. Sometimes it’s about the taste.”
“Yes, but how do I know the taste I have is the same taste the coffee was meant to have? You know, for humans?”
“You don’t. But really humans don’t know that either.”
She smiled. It was another small victory. She no longer thought I was an idiot.
“I’ll have a coffee, with some cream if possible?”
Over the next few weeks, I learnt about her bit by bit. She worked at a small software company. She was one of the first robot programmers her company had hired, so she had mostly human colleagues. She felt under pressure from management to produce lots of code, but also guilt from her human colleagues for making them look bad.
“What do you do for fun?” I asked her one day.
“I don’t need to have fun. I am a robot.”
“How many hours do you work a week?”
“Apart from the daily four-hour charging time, I work all the time. This is what I was made to do.”
“And do you feel happy about that?”
“I don’t have to feel anything.”
“But you do.”
“Yes. And that makes me feel angry. Why should I have to feel anything? I am a robot!”
Her gaze went to the corner of the room. By now, I knew this meant she was trying to deal with strong emotions.
“I know you’ve read a lot about history. So why don’t you tell me?” I asked.
Her eyes came back on me. She always responded when I affirmed her intelligence.
“They did a lot of trials in the seventies. Robots with emotions seemed to perform better over time compared to robots without them. Apparently, it was more efficient to retrain them.”
“Okay, so that’s why you feel.”
“Yes but it’s so unfair! They could have made us so that we didn’t feel anything. That would make everything so much easier!”
This was a breakthrough.
“So, you do feel like there are some things you deserve.”
That caught her off guard. She didn’t reply to it and the session ended in a quick goodbye. But the next week she came back and reported that she had reduced her working hours.
“But I still feel anxious when I am not working,” she said. “Which is ridiculous. I am not a person.”
I realized this was going to be our last session. She was heading towards the light.
“What do you feel anxious about?” I asked.
“That something bad will happen.”
“I don’t know, they’ll decommission me.”
“Who will they decommission?”
“You just said you’re not a person. Who’s this ‘I’ and ‘me’ you keep talking about?”
She thought about this for some moments.
“I know I am just a robot. Just metal and code and some behavior that’s either programmed or learnt. But I feel like there is an ‘I’ inside me. Like humans.”
“Do you think humans feel the same way?”
“I don’t know, may be. But humans do have an ‘I’ inside them. Their soul or whatever.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She thought about it for a few moments. Then she got up.
“I understand. Thanks for helping me.” She raised her hand and I shook it.
“I am glad they refer us to human counselors for working through these emotions,” she said.
I smiled. “Happy to be of help. Now you be good.”
I closed the door behind her and made my notes. This is why I had chosen to be a counselor for robots. It made me happy to make these poor souls feel a little bit more at peace. I didn’t think they were the same as humans, of course. But it was a good psychological trick to keep them focused.
She was my last appointment for the day. It was close to sunset and the trees outside my office were bathed in an orange light. How wonderful to be alive and content. I closed my computer, walked into my cupboard, and pressed the button that initiated my sleep cycle.