Therapy is Now in Beta

As Lawrence Yu approached, a smiling face appeared on the door, and a cheery voice said, “By placing your palm to the pad, you consent to the recording of all communication both verbal and non-verbal.”

If he refused, the school would call his dad. Lawrence glanced at his watch: 11:15. Dad might still be undergoing pain-relief treatment or else he was trying to sleep through the post-treatment nausea. Lawrence would have to at least go in and pretend to listen to the thing inside.

He consented, and the door opened into a small room where two chairs faced each other. One was empty. The counsel-bot sat in the other, wearing a nondescript, gray tunic. A face as plain as the tunic stared at the ground between the chairs. On its hairless head, a faded, red-ink stamp read BETA UNIT.

The counsel-bot began speaking while raising its head. “Welcome to therapy, Lawrence.” It glanced at a pad in its hand—a choreographed motion to thwart the creep factor of too much eye contact. “You’re nearing the end of your time at East Lansing Middle School, and this is your first offense,” the bot said. “Can you tell me about what happened today?”

The tone was calm, inviting, fake. Principal Andrews insisted that the counsel-bot was under the direct remote control of a human counselor who could juggle multiple middle schools in a day, but none of the students believed that. It was only a bundle of elaborate chat scripting. Being forced to talk to a machine about his problems made Lawrence want to kick the bot off its chair.

Instead, he tightened his grip on his chair’s arms and stared the bot down.

The wan smile on its face relaxed. As it did, a micro-expression created dimples on its chin in the same way his mother’s did.

The bot tapped her pad. “It says here that you poured water on a teachers-aid-bot until it short-circuited.”

He had to say something to meet the minimum engagement threshold. “Accident,” Lawrence said.

“Might have been,” said the bot. “But on Monday you ‘accidentally’ kicked a janitor-bot down the stairs. And on Wednesday, the principal found a hall-monitor-bot in pieces on the steps, two stories below an open window.” The bot drummed her fingers on her leg. “I have limited access to your family records, so I can see that your dad recently lost his employment.”

Lawrence squeezed his thumbs inside his fists until they cracked.

She glanced at his hands. “When an adult loses their job, they often become sad or angry. They may say or do things that—”

Blood rushed to Lawrence’s face, and with it came panic, shock, and rage. “He’s a great dad! But I guess your records don’t tell you that, do they?”

The bot leaned back. “Tell me about him,” she said.

“When my sister turned 15, he took her on a suborbital to Shanghai, where he grew up. They ate soup dumplings and went to the Science and Technology Museum. Does that sound abusive to you?”

“No, it doesn’t. I see that your 15th birthday is next week. Do you have a similar trip planned?”

“My dad…” Lawrence closed his eyes and wished his voice wasn’t so shaky. “My dad was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. He’s already missing his mouth with the dinner fork. In a few months, he won’t know who I am. There aren’t any trips to Shanghai in my future.” Lawrence pointed at the bot. “And before you load up a script on grief, I’m pretty sure this is all too complicated for your programming to handle so… we’re done.” He kicked the chair on his way out of the room.

The next day, Lawrence was in the chemistry lab when his pad pushed an urgent alert: schedule change. His calendar now displayed a continuous band of orange titled “therapy.” He closed his water bottle and left for the counselor’s office.

Lawrence sat and dropped his backpack on his lap. The bot stretched her face into an approximation of empathy that missed by a few millimeters. It looked like grim surprise. “Lawrence, I’m sorry about your dad.” She tilted her head. “If you answer a couple questions, I’ll let you take the rest of the day off. How does that sound?”


She swiped on her pad. “You said he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. That might have been a serious diagnosis during the first half of the century, but these days it would have been detected during his monthly screening. Caught early, it should be treatable. Do you know if the doctors discussed treatment with him?”

Lawrence played with the zipper on his backpack. “It should have been caught early, but the diagnostic-bot screwed up its assessment.” Lawrence frowned at her. “If that bot had done its job right my dad would still have his job. He’d be able to go to my soccer games instead of going to endless appointments.”

A look of understanding crossed her face. “The bots you damaged. That was because of the diagnostic-bot?”

“There’s too many of you out there messing everything up,” Lawrence said while unzipping his backpack. He lifted out a water bottle and removed its cap but did not drink from it.

The bot put out a hand. “Before you do anything that might get you into trouble, you should know that this body is more advanced than a TA-bot. There’s not a lot of damage you can do with water.”

Lawrence glowered at her. He raised the bottle, and a wisp of vapor escaped the top.

She lowered her hand. “It’s not water.”

“The chemistry lab is full of all sorts of things that, when mixed together, will melt you to your battery core.”

“Lawrence, I’m not an artificial intelligence. Just a person that’s trying to help you.”

He squinted. “I don’t believe you.”

She let silence grow between them, then said, “Before you do this, will you let me say one more thing?”

“I don’t want to talk about my dad with a bot anymore.”

“I want to tell you a story about my dad.”

Lawrence lowered the bottle.

“I remember one morning, when I was very young, my dad carried me from my bed to the car before the sun was up.” If this was a script, it was better than any Lawrence had ever heard. “He drove me to a strange place that was dusty, hot, and boring. I mean, why would a little girl care about salt flats? But Dad…he told me about how the entire desert was once an ocean, and as the water evaporated, it left the salt behind. That’s why the ground was white and sparkly. He was so happy to tell me about the salt flats that I couldn’t help but love them. And now, 20 years later, I still smile whenever I see one of those pink salt lamps in someone’s office or at the store.”

A knot tightened in Lawrence’s chest. “So you wanted to tell me about how great your life is? You wanted to rub it in about how bad mine is?”

She leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. No warmth came off the hand and one of the fingers squeezed too hard. “No. I wanted to say that you don’t have to get on a suborbital to connect with your dad. There’s still time, Lawrence.”

He carefully put the lid back on his bottle. Then the truth behind her words overwhelmed him. He sobbed, and the realization that there was a real person behind that squeeze on his knee made him sob harder. It was ten minutes before he could leave for home.

Lawrence arrived early at school the next day and walked straight to the counselor’s office. Inside, the bot had her eyes closed. When he sat down, she blinked awake. “What can I do for you… Lawrence?”

“You were right. I convinced my dad to teach me how to make soup dumplings, and he spent the whole afternoon telling me all about growing up in China. I just…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I wanted to say thank you.”

A blank look came over her face and froze there, so Lawrence reached out and shook the bot’s knee.

Then her mouth fell open and a voice came out without her lips moving. “I did mute it…I can’t find the notes on Lawrence Yu. Does anyone know who was covering East Lansing Middle School last week?”

A crackling silence.

“What do you mean she went to see her dad? There’s no vacation on her calendar! What? Oh crap.” The bot’s eyes closed and it slumped forward.

Lawrence sighed. He unzipped his backpack, then carefully took out a salt lamp and placed it on the side table near the counsel-bot. He plugged it in, and a soft pink glow colored the lifeless bot’s face.

Jack Windeyer’s father did not grow up in Shanghai, but that didn’t stop the two of them from visiting the Science & Technology Museum or eating soup dumplings at the Yuyuan Garden. If you are able and willing to teach Jack to make xiaolongbao the Shanghainese way, please give him a shout at Until then, he’ll continue to content himself with microwaving the frozen ones.

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