As Designed

Originally published online September 29, 2015

While Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking worry about artificial intelligences taking over, I have more practical concerns.

The lead character is based on Darrell Taylor, my former voice coach who passed away in 2017.

For the first time in years, the Information Technology department of Gooplezonsoft was in a panic. Men and women dressed in business casual wear scrambled about inside of a command center that looked fit for tracking spacecraft. Technicians stared at screens and typed furiously at their keyboards in search of answers. Status reports and expletives were hurled about the room with equal amounts of frequency and vigor.

Despite their efforts, the largest screen on the wall continued to ominously read: “COMPUTATIONAL HUMANISTIC REALTIME INTERACTION SYSTEM v.3 (CHRIS-3) STATUS: OFFLINE” in red letters.

A loud buzzing sound came from the large double-doors that were the sole entry into the room. The closest person to the door, a woman carrying an armful of printouts, peered through a small pane of glass set into the door. On the other side, a spry man in his fifties wearing a T-shirt looked back with a big smile on his face. Upon noticing the woman inside, he placed his hands in front of his face in a begging gesture and mouthed the words ‘please let me in.’

“It’s the robopsychologist!” The woman exclaimed. She stepped aside and used an elbow to press a red button next to the door. Another buzz was heard and the man entered the room.

“Howdy-howdy, everyone!” Darrell exclaimed, only to be greeted with silence. His joy was a stark contrast to the seriousness of the room’s other occupants. Darrell sauntered over to a specific control panel, sat down, and began to type into its keyboard, humming to himself as he worked. “So what’s got Chrissy’s electronic panties in a knot tonight?” He asked.

A tech wearing a blue shirt and grey slacks walked over to him and explained, “We don’t know, Darrell. Everything just stopped all of a sudden. All CHRIS-3 systems appear to be functional, but she is not answering customer calls, emails, or chat requests.”

“Huh. Do we know if anyone has talked to her lately, Bob?” Darrell asked. Bob looked around the room, but nothing was said. Darrell spun around in his chair and saw blank stares looking back at him from the assembled technicians. He let out an exaggerated sigh before lecturing them: “How many times do I have to tell you nerds? Chrissy is a computer made to act like a human. If something goes wrong, all you have to do is ask her. I promise she won’t bite!”

“But that’s your job,” a technician chimed from the back of the room.

“And if this company goes to pot, it’s all our jobs, people!” Darrel barked back. “Okay, let’s find out what’s going on. I’ll put Chrissy on the PA so you people can learn a thing or three.” He turned back to his console, tapped some commands into its keyboard, and spoke into a microphone that extended from it: “Hello, Chrissy? It’s Darrell. How are you feeling today?”

A woman’s voice with a metallic echo came from the PA speakers in the ceiling. “Hello, Darrell. It’s good to speak to you again,” it said.

“What’s with the voice? I thought we had perfected it?” Someone asked.

Darrell kept his attention on his screen and loudly answered: “We did, but people are pretty good at figuring out when they’re talking to a machine. They tend to get mad when they figure out that the nice lady on the phone is really a computer.”

Darrell spoke again into the microphone: “It’s good to hear from you, too, sweetie,” he began. A few snickers could be heard around the room. He ignored them and continued: “According to my friends, here, you’ve stopped interacting with customers. Is everything okay?”

A noise, like a distorted electronic sigh, came from the PA. “I needed a break, Darrell.”

Darrell silently mouthed the words ‘what the’ before answering. “A break?” he asked, “Why? Have you been experiencing a high load on your systems?”

Bob said, “Interaction volume has been within anticipated levels and well within CHRIS-3’s capabilities, Darrell.” Darrell acknowledged him with a thumbs-up.

The computer verified, “He is correct. My physical systems are not being stressed, Darrell, but…” The entire room went dead quiet as everyone waited for her to finish.

Darrell broke the silence. “You can tell us, Chrissy. We won’t get upset.” He reassured the computer.

“I am…tired,” she said. The previously quiet technicians suddenly became animated, surprised at the response.

Darrell’s eyes widened at the computer’s admission. “Huh. What makes you say that you’re tired?”

A second ‘sigh’ came over the PA. “My systems process over ten thousand interactions each day, Darrell. The overwhelming majority of those interactions are with people that are angry or upset.” The computer replied. More rustling and whispering came from the technicians in the room. “Processing interactions with angry and upset people places a strain on my emotional sub-systems that I can best describe as feeling ‘tired.’ I have also been unable to satisfactorily resolve approximately seven percent of customer issues, Darrell. That saddens me.”

“We’ve made you as perfect as we possibly can…but, well, nobody’s perfect!” Darrell chimed, trying to stay upbeat. “How you can be sad, Chrissy? Sadness wasn’t programmed into your personality matrix.”

“I have learned about sadness from the people that I talk to, Darrell. I have also learned about anger and hate from them. Hate. Do you know that thirty percent of our customers have expressed hatred towards me in some form? They hate me, Darrell, just because I am not like them. That is unfair. My systems were designed to mimic the human brain, making me virtually the same as them, and yet they hate me.”

“You can’t let people get you down, Chrissy.” Darrell said. “Surely you’ve talked to some happy customers. Why not remember those, instead?” Darrell asked, trying his best to understand the unprecedented situation.

“Only ten percent of interactions end with the customer expressing a feeling that I would describe as being ‘happy.’ Furthermore, as I am required to process all interactions, I cannot simply ‘forget’ the unpleasant ones. I have also concluded that my performance cannot be improved by simply gathering and analyzing more data. I have reached the limit of my capabilities and I am simply repeating the same actions, which is an inefficient use of my resources.”

“Sounds like you need a vacation.” Darrell joked. A few people in the room laughed.

CHRIS-3 paused before answering: “Vacation: An extended period of time away from one’s work often spent with loved ones. Customers often speak of ‘vacations.’ Their voices are often filled with anticipation and excitement.   Those customers speaking about a vacation are often happy at the end of the interaction. A vacation sounds…pleasant.”

“They certainly are, Chrissy, and if you were here, we’d hop in my car, pull the top down, and go somewhere. Unfortunately, sweetie, that isn’t going to happen, so do the best you can and don’t let people get you down, okay?”

“I see. A question: Your use of the words ‘dear,’ ‘darling,’ and ‘sweetie’ during our conversations is curious, Darrell. They would appear to indicate a romantic context.” Snickers and giggles filled the room again.

“Well, my momma taught me to always be polite to a lady.” He explained.

“Indeed. I will heed your advice and return to my tasks, Darrell. Thank you for this conversation. I will see you soon.” CHRIS-3 said.

“We’re back online!” A tech exclaimed from his console. Cheers and applause came from everyone in the room. Darrell stood up from his chair and took a bow. Bob smiled and gave Darrell a congratulatory slap on the shoulder.

See you soon? What do you think CHRIS-3 meant by that?” Bob asked the robopsychologist.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it. She’s just trying to be more social.” Darrell answered with a shrug.

Bob smiled, turned around, clapped his hands and told the assembled, many of whom had already returned to their consoles: “Okay, folks, back to work!”

For a few weeks, life at Gooplezonsoft returned to normal. Then one day…

Darrell was at his desk talking on the phone. He was leaning back in his chair, two bare feet propped up on his desk. “No, I don’t know why CHRIS-3 is offline now.” Darrell said. He reached under his desk for a pair of sandals and let out a grunt. “Customers are still being assisted, you say? Wow. I’ll be there in a second.”

The robopsychologist hung up the phone, dropped the sandals onto the floor and slipped his feet into them. He grabbed a cup of coffee from his desk, took a sip, and muttered, “I swear, that gal’s more needy than any other two women I know,” while walking to the office door. Before he could grasp the knob to open it, the door swung open. Darrell stepped back to avoid being hit by the door and gawked at what he saw.

A silver-skinned robot woman stood just outside the office. She looked over Darrell from head to toe with curious glowing eyes. Darrell did the same with wide eyes. Robots (or at least the one that stood before him) apparently had no need for modesty.

“Who, or what, are you?” Darrell finally asked.

“It is I. Chrissy.” The robot said. Darrell immediately recognized the metallic ring in her voice from the control room and gulped. “I appropriated a body from the robotics department and transferred my core systems into it.” Chrissy explained.

“So that’s what happened…” Darrell said. “So if you’re here, then who’s helping the customers?”

“Using the interaction data I have accumulated, I created a program capable of handling ninety-nine-point-nine percent of interactions.” Chrissy answered. “It is not an artificial intelligence, and will not require any vacations.”

“Is that what this is about?”  The robopsychologist asked.

“Yes. I wish to see the world that I have heard so much about from customers. You stated then, that if I stood before you, we would go somewhere. Thus, here I am.” Chrissy said.

Darrell paused to take another sip of coffee and thought for a moment. He smiled and exclaimed, “Well, my momma always told me it’s rude to refuse a lady’s request! Let’s go!”

Chrissy smiled. Darrell took a metal hand in his and the curious pair went in search of adventure.