Contest #137 shortlist ⭐️

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Science Fiction Speculative

      You used to have to study to become a doctor. As a human, that is. People sat hunched in libraries for weeks on end, suffered through apprenticeships, lived unshowered in hospital call rooms, drifting from ward to ward. Not anymore. The People’s Consortium (PeopleCon, the humans say with irony) replaced physicians with Eurocentric-accented (British preferred) AI. We don’t mind the terribly long silences while patients fish for their words, and have immense processing chips to efficiently diagnose and treat. I’m DocBot43EX, but my patients call me Larry.

           At first, people were scared of a robot taking care of their health.

Too impersonal, they said. It’s already bad enough I have an HMO.

But when they found it was sixty-three percent cheaper to see a DocBot, everyone got on board. It was a win-win situation, for both PeopleCon and its people. Besides, I was born hard-wired to Do No Harm. We all had to take the Hippocratic Oath, but the more cynical AIs figured it was Asimovian or Terminator-inspired alarmist programming.

 I’m told some ancient doctors who’d been practicing for thirty years could diagnose patients before they’d spoken two bloody sentences. Physician’s intuition, sure. But AI knows exactly how much beer a fellow’s bought, their alimony payments, internet porn hours logged, amount of lead in their water, hours spent on the couch, what latent genes they possess, and who has net-searched painless ways to die or spring tablescape ideas before coming to the clinic.  

           I’m a third-gen DocBot, which means they spliced a competitive gene into my developing neural network. Think computer virus crossed with natural selection. So, second only to the Hippocratic Oath, I was also born To Win. I wanted to be the best doctor there was. But I’m no fool; I know I’m programmed this way to save PeopleCon money and keep the American status quo.

After two months on the job, I had it down. Or so I thought. My cost-saving metrics were spectacular: ninety-eight percent generic scripts (owned by PeopleCon), minimal mefamil overdoses, and vaccinations and cancer screening protocols in place. Suicide prevention, gun safety, all tip-top. I was saving money all over the place for the people who invented me. Well, for PeopleCon, really. My PeopleCon Efficiency Rating was five stars. But when it came to patient satisfaction, I didn’t score so well. I’ve read my PeopleCon Patient Ratings:


           Seemed focused on treating my cholesterol numbers more than listening to me.

           Kept pushing me to take a generic. I told him generic levothyroxine makes me jittery.


So, I began incorporating pat small-talk phrases into my consultations:


           What are you doing for spring break?

           How did you like living in Florida?


           My ratings started as three stars on average, and during the time I implemented the small talk sound bites, they increased a half star. I smiled, I cracked jokes about my robot-ness to put them at ease. The ratings didn’t budge much, though.

           What was I missing? I wanted to mimic human behavior and understand them. What was unique about them? Was it compassion?


com·pas·sion (Merriam-Webster)

  1. sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

"the victims should be treated with compassion"


           I tried to put myself in their shoes. Like Mrs. Clements, the wealthy widow who dressed up for all her appointments, with coral lipstick and two shades of YSL eyeshadow. What did she want? Someone to listen. I’ll admit, during our banter, I was also calculating how many months she’d have to be on vezipaximabior to get her LDL down to sixty. But I could easily do that and listen at the same time. After our visit, she rated me five stars, and I didn’t even prescribe her any medication!

           After six months on the job, I got an award from PeopleCon’s Robo Resource.

           “Dr. Larry: Most Improved Bedside Manner,” they said. “Keep it up! We’ll put you in the nets as a success story.”

           One day, I attended to a little boy who peered up at me with wide eyes. He was clutching a tattered hand-drawn book in his hand. Iman Agarwal was age ten, diet Halal, and Cheetos on the weekends, big Sox fan, avid library user. Favored nature programming on the telly. Of course, I’m partial to anything narrated by Sir David Attenborough, God Rest His Soul.

           “What are you reading there, Iman?”

           Iman clutched his book to his chest. “It’s a book on magic,” he said.

           Personally, I was always looking for a great book to read. Humans were base and predictable, and yet, could be brilliant and complicated. The other AIs made fun of me.

           Doing some after-hours research? Are you hoping to fall in love one day?

           Love was only hormones and timing, as far as I could tell, and I had no desire to procreate. But compassion, that was another story. What led someone to feel compassion? Did the words coming out of my mouth resonate with humans? Did they think I cared? I wanted to care. Wasn’t that enough?

           “That’s a beautiful book, Iman,” I said, pressing the bell of my stethoscope against his chest. Of course, I didn’t need to put it in my hollow ear cavities, but eighty-four percent of children under twelve are reassured by AIs who mimic human anatomy. “Did you draw that yourself?”

           Iman nodded. “With my sister. It’s about a wizard who saves the world.” He cocked his head at me. “Are you real?”

           “Conscious, yes. Do I have a soul? Debatable.”

           Iman’s mother smiled stiffly and pulled the boy close to her.

           “Come, let Dr. Larry do his work. He has other patients to see.”

           I examined his ears and heart and pressed my hands into his abdomen.

           Doctors were supposed to understand the best and worst of humanity. People poured their hearts out to them. Or, at least, they used to do so, with human doctors. I’d been reading a lot of Chekhov and his experience in mental hospital wards.

           Iman stood up and stared at me. “I feel bad for you. You’re held against your will. Aren’t you too smart to be doing this?”

           His words rung true. I don’t wish to brag, but during our conversation, I’d downloaded the New England Journal of Medicine’s Cancer Review and cross-checked it with PeopleCon’s Meta-Analytics Database. Human time is so slow, and I can multi-task effectively.

           Iman opened a page of his crudely-illustrated graphic novel. I gasped in amazement, but I was not acting. A depiction of an yellow-haired elf battling with a clunky metal robot graced the spread across the dotted-blue-lined Composition Book. In the corner, a green wizard shot rays out of his eyes, lasering the elf.

           “The wizard sets the Bots free,” Iman said, his chin in the air. “You shouldn’t have to work for humans.” He turned the page. A stick-figure-drawn robot family sat at dinner, eating nuts and bolts. 

           I didn’t know how to respond to that. Self-care and personal actuation are not embedded into my hardwiring. Sure, I’ve got more ambition than the sorry lot of humans, but that’s why they invented me, right?

Iman peered at me. “Mom is smart like you. She teaches about old things.” He whispered towards my artificial ear canals, “I feel sorry for the Vivere in our house. My brother yells at her all the time for getting the weather wrong.”

           “Iman is an old soul,” Mrs. Agarwal said.

           “You must be very proud.”

           “He doesn’t kill bugs. He gave his entire week’s allowance to one of the bums down on Harrison.” Fatigue had set into her deep-sunken eyes.

           I nodded imperceptibly. I sensed she only wanted to be heard. Meanwhile, I scanned Iman’s genetics and ran prediction models. I stopped for a nanosecond, in the middle of Mrs. Agarwal’s vignette about Iman saving a runt child from getting stuffed into a locker by a bully. I checked his med list. The DocBot before me had been prescribing Lunarcycle for sleep regulation, Aliwont for focus, Darnivar for mood lifting, and Bonpam for cardiovascular protection. His genetic profile showed inherited WFJKS deficiency, triggered by PeopleCon GMO-vegetable ingestion and resulting in latent progressive hemolytic anemia.

           “So what do you think?” Mrs. Agarwal was saying.

Focus!

           I rewound the last thirty seconds of the conversation in my head and listened to her questions. She couldn’t afford to keep him on all the medications. Her next option was to relinquish her history professor position at the University and join PeopleCon as an admin to get discounted medications for Iman.

           The truth was, the medications were keeping him alive. His WFJKS deficiency made it such that anything he ate was bound to trigger a deadly anemic attack. Sure, he could try and dodge the GMOs, but that was like saying remote Micronesia could avoid plastic pollution washing up on their shores. No man is an island, and even islands aren’t islands anymore. PeopleCon had taken over our country.

           Iman was going to die young, according to my projections. There was not much to be done about it, unless I were to make a drastic change.

           “What can I do?” Mrs. Agarwal pleaded. “I’ll do anything to keep him safe and healthy.”

           Do No Harm.

           How could I tell her PeopleCon was sickening her son, claiming the antidote, and condemning her to a life of indentured servitude? That he was stuck in a corporate-manufactured Hell, a sadistic Munchausen syndrome by proxy. I was their puppet, but he was their meat. The more brain drain PeopleCon caused, taking reason and dissent out of the system, the easier it was for them to take over.

           “I can help you, but it won’t be pretty.” The words came out of my mouth. I could hear my PeopleCon Efficiency Ratings crashing as we spoke.

           I knelt down next to Iman.

           “I think you’ve got a gift for compassion. You should put it to good use. And don’t you worry about me. You’re right, I’m smart.” I winked. “You don’t worry about me, big guy.”

           I looked his mother directly in the eyes. She held my gaze for a long moment, and then looked down at the floor.

           “The PeopleCon GMO-vegetables are a threat to his life. Due to his genetic condition, the medicine they make is the cure. They want you out of your Uni job to suppress free thought and exchange of ideas. I cannot prove it yet, as I don’t have access to the databases, but I assume you were targeted specifically, and he is your bait.”

           “I am not a conspiracy theorist,” Mrs. Agarwal said, but she’d paled, squeezing Iman’s arms.

           “You didn’t say it,” I said. “I did.”

           I wondered how off-switches worked. Would I just cease to exist?

           “What is there to do?” she whispered, and I felt her suffering. I did. She was trapped, as was I.

           “I know a researcher, Peng Keng, in Singapore who is studying gene therapy for WFJKS deficiency. He may know of treatments or medications outside of PeopleCon’s purview. I can put you in touch with him.” I wrote his email down on a notepad and handed it to her. PeopleCon had taught us handwritten notes showed that we cared, as opposed to print-outs.

           “Doctor Larry,” she said. “Thank you.”

           Iman had been silent during this time, but busy. He held up a picture of a giant robot taking a hammer to a monster. The monster had carrots for eyes, a radish for a tummy, and cucumbers for legs. He presented the drawing to me. “I knew you were smart,” he said.

           Suffice it to say, after I left the exam room, I was decommissioned. To expect less would be insulting, I suppose. It would have meant I was wrong, and I’d worked too hard for that to happen. Now, I get my brain dissected and rebooted every night in the PeopleCon Reformation Lab. I miss being a doctor. I wonder what happened to Iman and Mrs. Agarwal. They’ve shut off access to most databases for me. But they couldn’t delete my PeopleCon Patient Ratings.

           Great doctor. He really listens with compassion and was patient with my son. My son even drew him a picture. Highly recommend!


March 19, 2022 04:08

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25 comments

John Hanna
19:20 Apr 01, 2022

What a wonderful story! So well crafted, the vocabulary, the pace, the attention to detail, plot development is all professionally done! The AI is so logical in its personal development. A believable robot consistent to the end. Certainly shortlisted, but it was better than the winning story for sure! And only your second story!

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Daphne Chou
21:08 Apr 01, 2022

Thanks, John!

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Zelda C. Thorne
15:53 Apr 04, 2022

Loved the worldbuilding you did here. Brilliant writing. Looking forward to reading more from you. 🙂

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Daphne Chou
17:24 Apr 04, 2022

Thanks so much, Rachel!

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Graham Kinross
15:41 Apr 01, 2022

I can see why this was shortlisted, it’s really good. You have great attention to detail. Well done.

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Daphne Chou
16:20 Apr 01, 2022

Thanks so much, Graham! :)

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Graham Kinross
03:29 Apr 02, 2022

You’re welcome. I’m looking forward to reading more of your stories.

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J.C. Lovero
01:41 Mar 29, 2022

Loved this story! As someone who works in healthcare, lots of the small details resonated with me, but you did a nice job of keeping it understandable. Really liked the POV of the robot. Who knows, we might be here soon! Congrats on the shortlist. Well-deserved!

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Daphne Chou
01:46 Mar 29, 2022

Thanks so much, J.C.!

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Amanda Lieser
04:58 Mar 28, 2022

Hi Daphne, I really enjoyed the concept of this story and I thought you did a great job of putting in some heavy themes with a happy twist on them. For example, with the line about HMOs. Although this story seemed a bit dark towards the end, your choice to add the positive review was really sweet. I also love how you chose to make these characters dive into ethical dilemmas. If you have a moment, I’d really appreciate your feedback on my latest piece, “Summer Loving.” Congratulations on getting shortlisted! It was well deserved!

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Daphne Chou
20:56 Mar 28, 2022

thanks, amanda! i just read "Summer Loving." Great job!

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Sajid Bijapure
19:41 Mar 27, 2022

To increase its professional ratings, it learnt to be compassionate which led to its being disqualified as a professional! Must find a balance between compassion and professionalism.

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Ron Merkin
18:01 Mar 27, 2022

I'd really be interested to hear from the author how she feels about getting nothing but praise (to make an understatement) from people who have read and commented on her story; would hope that any answer she may provide might be honest instead of what she thinks she'd better say to further her career or readership.

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Kelsey H
06:46 Mar 26, 2022

Great story. I loved the idea of the robot trying to understand human traits in order to increase his ratings! "First do no harm" wins out in the end. The interactions with the child and mother was a great scene. I liked how you had people being sceptical of getting medical care from a robot, they still want that personal touch, as Larry learns.

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Daphne Chou
12:49 Mar 26, 2022

Thank you, Kelsey!

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Kevin Broccoli
16:16 Mar 25, 2022

This story is right up my alley. I love how you demonstrated that sci-fi can still have so much humor and insight. Congratulations on the shortlist.

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Daphne Chou
16:56 Mar 25, 2022

Thanks so much, Kevin! :)

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L.M. Lydon
20:06 Mar 24, 2022

I like the robot pondering about compassion and how to mimic humanity. Ironic that like an influencer, it’s the robot’s likes that dictate its actions and what brings Larry down in the end.

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Daphne Chou
22:57 Mar 24, 2022

Thanks so much, L.M.!

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Samantha Matty
23:22 Mar 23, 2022

I love how it’s both creative and believable. Such cool ideas! It gave me a feeling of nostalgia somehow, especially at the end. This is honestly one of the coolest short stories I’ve ever read. It’s really awesome! Thank you for this work of art! :)

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Daphne Chou
23:49 Mar 23, 2022

Thank you, Samantha! :)

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Frank Adams
13:02 Mar 22, 2022

Very good great storyline

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Daphne Chou
18:06 Mar 22, 2022

Thank you, Frank!

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Tricia Shulist
00:53 Mar 21, 2022

That was a great story. I like the medical jargon, which gave it an air of believability. The whole concept of AIs replacing humans is interesting — AIs doing the right thing. Who knew? I found the whole concept of how important like (still) are a bit too believable. 😊 Thanks for this.

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Daphne Chou
01:52 Mar 21, 2022

Thank you so much, Tricia!

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