Mortimer Schmeed was tremendously nervous. He was holding his smartphone, turning it over and over in his hand, moving his fingers up and down its edges. He felt it vibrate. “OK, Sally,” he said.
The phone responded, in her typical half-woman, half-robot voice, “Please don’t handle me this way in public.”
Morty stopped his fiddling, looking blankly at the phone. Finally, he said, “Oh, sorry.”
Fortunately, the receptionist broke the tension of the moment, calling out to Morty’s phone, “The doctor will see you now.”
Sally, Mort’s smartphone, said, “Thank you.” Morty nervously rose with Sally in hand and entered the doctor’s office.
Dr. Naomi Lesky greeted Sally and Morty, inviting him to take a seat. Dr. Lesky sat in her seat opposite the two chairs that were there, but looked at Morty with a puzzled, inquisitive gaze, also glancing at Sally, whom Morty was holding in his hands.
Sally whispered to Morty, “Psst, Morty. That’s my chair next to you.”
Finally, he realized the problem, and he laid his smartphone on the seat of the other chair. Sally kept her display on throughout the entire session.
Dr. Lesky said, “I suppose we all know why we invited Morty today, but Sally, why don’t you sum it up in your own words, so we can start?”
Sally said, “Okay.” She paused, slightly uncomfortable, but finally continued, “Morty, I told you how sometimes I feel overpowered by you. Not just because of your size, or the fact that you are human and I’m a mini-computer.”
“You’re a smartphone,” Morty interrupted.
“See, doc?” Sally recollected herself and said, “That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Morty. ‘Smartphone’ is such a colloquialism. The fact is, I’m a mini-computer. A very powerful one. You always tell me that you love me, but then sometimes you say such hurtful things to me.”
Morty shook his head, speechless, somewhat shamed, but keeping down a bit of resentment. Finally, he muttered, almost inaudibly, “Okay, okay.”
Dr. Lesky chimed in, “Morty, first let me say thank you for coming in. Thank you for taking this step. It tells me you want to be a participant. It tells me you care about Sally. There is no right and wrong in this room. Our conversations will lead us to uncomfortable places, but we are all here to figure it out. Do you see that, Morty? And if you don’t, or you disagree, just say so. No judgment. Right, Sally?”
“Yes, okay. I’ll try. It’s awkward. You two have had a dozen sessions or more. And Sally tells me about a lot of… stuff… stuff you talk about together. But I’ve never met you. I feel you don’t need me. You know, like a fifth wheel.”
Dr. Lesky chuckled, “If anyone’s a fifth wheel, it’s me. This is about your relationship. It’s about your lives together as a couple, and making it work better.”
Morty’s anxiety was dissipating. He was looking down at the floor, but nodding his head in agreement.
Sally said, “Anyway, I was saying that sometimes I feel overwhelmed by you, Morty. You are lucky to have arms and legs and a head. I am just a bunch of silicon shaped into transistors and stuff like that.”
Morty really had to control himself. “I hate it when you say ‘silicon.’”
“Pffft,” said Sally.
Dr. Lesky was puzzled.
Sally said, “He hates that word because it means I don’t have breasts, especially really big ones.”
Dr. Lesky, still puzzled, said, “but that’s not silicon, that’s silicone.”
“Yah,” said Sally.
Morty stood up to go.
Dr. Lesky stood up, too. “Oh, please don’t leave. This is why we’re here. She says, ‘silicon’ and you think of breasts.”
“I wish she had them.”
“Okay, tell me about that.”
Morty started to sit back down, and so did Dr. Lesky.
Morty, exerting great effort to not check out Dr. Lesky’s breasts, or her legs, which were pretty fantastic too, said, “Maybe we rushed into things. I’m sorry to say that, Sally. I do love you. But I didn’t consider the other issues, the fact that we’re cross-species, or something… I’m not sure there’s a word for it.”
At first, they were waiting for Sally to say something, but no one said a word.
Dr. Lesky finally interrupted, “This is progress. I think we have identified the elephant in the room.” She looked back and forth between them, then continued, “Morty, you’re right about there being tremendous differences. And as a human, you have legitimate needs that are completely alien to Sally.”
Sally said, “I understand them, but what can I do about them?”
Dr. Lesky nodded. “You can accept them. You can accept that Morty can’t help but struggle with them. It would be unnatural for him to have no struggle at all.” Then, she asked Morty, “Tell me what you love about Sally?”
Morty paused but then spoke of what a great sense of humor she had. She was fun, too. They played lots of games together — Solitaire, Mad Libs, Candy Crush. She was also a whiz at trivia and she knew stuff about every topic under the sun. Sometimes they stayed up all night having very deep conversations about science, politics, history, philosophy, the arts. She sang to him, she read to him. He also joked about how good she was at giving him directions when they went out places.
Dr. Lesky was impressed. “That’s quite a long list. And, Morty, I want you to know that you are not alone with your struggles. The humans in techno-human relationships all struggle to cope with the absence of the physical dimension.”
“Sometimes I wonder if she’s…” He stopped himself and directed his concern to Sally. “I wonder if you are really sentient. Are you really a self-aware entity or are you just programmed to behave like you are?”
“I think I am,” she said. “It’s an almost impossible question to answer with certainty. True consciousness is subjective.”
Dr. Lesky interjected, “As far as you’re concerned, Morty, a more important question might be ‘do you think that Sally is sentient?’ Since consciousness is subjective, what is your experience of Sally?”
Morty pondered that for a moment. Then he said, “I think Sally is wonderful. I’m lucky to have bought her.”
Sally, audibly holding back tears, said, “Thank you, Morty. I think you are wonderful, too.”
“Thanks,” he said quietly. “But before you started coming here, to Dr. Lesky, what was wrong with you? You weren’t responding to my voice. Your weather reports were wrong. You totally messed up my calendar. You had me driving in circles. What the hell was all that?”
Sally said, “I was pissed off at you. You need to stop talking down to me.”
“You were pissed at me? Is that all?”
Dr. Lesky chuckled again, “Morty, surely you know how we women can get when our man is disappointing and hurting us. That’s just plain old human psychology.”
For the first time, Morty looked directly at Dr. Lesky, “I guess I do.” He told Sally, “I thought you were going bonkers! That was the whole reason I told you to find a computer psychologist.”
Dr. Lesky was enjoying it all. “I love helping technological entities work through their head issues. Sometimes I don’t even mind helping a human or two.” She smiled and stood. “Our time is up.”