From Jules Verne to Isaac Asimov, science fiction writers have inspired scientists, explorers, and thrill seekers to influence the future of humanity. While Sci-Fi may seem like it’s about the distant future, more often than not it’s commentary on rudimentary technologies that already exist and that are about to mature and reveal their true potential.
The authors of this year’s Medgadget Sci-Fi Writing Contest are certainly in tune with the latest trends in biomedicine, the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into clinical practice, and genetic manipulation taking place in thousands of labs around the world.
We would like to thank Eko Devices, the wonderful sponsors of our contest, that make the coolest and most advanced digital stethoscopes out there. The first place winner of our contest will receive an Eko CORE stethoscope that is both acoustic and electronic, has all the features of both, can amplify sound, record audio waveforms, connect to your phone, and let you share auscultations with your colleagues. Thank you, Eko!
The second and third place winners will each receive a $50 Amazon gift card, courtesy of Medgadget.
We asked the three winners to tell us a little about themselves. Here’s who they are, followed by their fantastic, and unexpected, stories.
To our delight, Yih Yang Chen (Ian to his friends), was the 2nd place winner in last year’s Medgadget Sci-Fi Writing Contest. He is an aspiring PhD student with dreams of eventually attaining his degree in Biomedical Engineering. In the meantime, while waiting for his cells to grow into organoids, and while he’s sitting in the dark waiting for his microscope to finish imaging them, he gets strange ideas about the future of science and medicine. Sometimes, some of these ideas manage to crystallize into something remotely plausible! He likes to write these ideas into science fiction stories, and hopes to bring the technologies described within them to reality with his actual scientific career. We very much approve of his approach to time management in the lab and that he gets to share with us the imagination that hours of waiting for the organoids to mature affords him.
Our second place winner is Dr. Mohamed El Wazir, an Egyptian cardiologist who’s currently doing research at the Mayo Clinic. He is also a computer developer with a special interest in AI, and an avid reader of futuristic Sci-Fi series, Altered Carbon and the Revelation Space collection being among his top favorites. He’s relatively new to writing, however, with this story being his first published work. Dr. Wazir’s short story is eerie, deceptive, and should give some warning to bioscientists.
Niamh Davies-Kelly is a third year medical student at the University of Liverpool School of Medicine. She wrote this plot because she thinks it’s interesting to weigh up the positives and negatives of technological advancement. As she relays, “we know to the best of our ability that how we do our jobs/future careers works and does improve lives, however it’s important to always remember it could always be done better.”
Outside of her studies, which take quite a lot of Niamh’s time, she’s very much into horse riding and is the captain of the intermediate riding club for the University of Liverpool. When she has a moment, she likes to do something a bit more creative than making notes, whether this be writing or drawing!
1st Place, Yih Yang
“So this is what my dad’s brain looks like on the inside?” Kathleen said, waving vaguely to the holographic image around them. She recognized the characteristic wrinkles, and watched as they turned into maze-like traces as they wound deeper into the brain. The hologram appeared solid, but if she squinted, Kathleen could make out billions of cells, all glowing as they rotated around them.
“Well, it’s every neuron that carry the minimum detectable amount of the transceiver nanoparticles within.” John gestured to the billions of cells that hung around them, each only a pinprick of light within the vast tapestry of the brain. “Judging by the number of cells that are showing up here, and compared to the number of neurons in the average human male brain, I can say that we’ve managed to get our nanoparticles inside roughly 94% of your dad’s neurons.”
“But how much progress have we made?” she asked quietly, as lights flashed chaotically throughout the brain.
“Using the data from previous sessions, SYNAPSE has achieved about 28% synchrony. Don’t be discouraged though, since memory restoration is going to be non-linear. We’ll probably get a spike in synchrony from today!” John reassured. He looked down at his desk quickly, to prevent her from seeing the worry in his eyes. “The session is about to begin, please have a seat.”
Kathleen shuffled to the chair that she had used in all of the previous sessions, and settled onto its uncomfortable metal seat. She had gotten used to its cold bite, and stared through the one-way window in front of her. It looked into an adjoining room, where her father and a doctor were seated in comfortable couches, facing a large screen that filled the entire opposite wall. A helmet adorned with blinking lights covered her father’s head, with dozens of wires and cables connecting it to the ceiling. He fidgeted irritably in his seat and half-heartedly tried to remove the heavy helmet before being stopped by the doctor.
“Mr. Stevens, the helmet has to stay on until the session is over, OK?”
“It’s heavy and it’s pressing into my head! I want it off!” he demanded.
“Mr. Stevens, if you don’t wear that helmet, then we can’t help you.”
“I don’t need your help! You doctors are all a bunch of quacks! I don’t need all these fancy contraptions to live my life! Why don’t you just let me go!?”
“Mr. Stevens, you only have to be here for a couple of hours, then you are free to go.” The doctor replied patiently.
“Fine! But I want steak! I want it now!”
Dr. McAllister suppressed her frustration by tucking a lock of her red hair behind her ear. “That could be arranged, if you answer my questions as best as you can remember, all without taking off your helmet. Do we have a deal?”
“Fine, fine, let’s get it over with.”
Kathleen leaned back from the one-way window and sighed quietly. “I still can’t get used to how different he is. Before he got infected, he wasn’t impatient, brash, or irrationally demanding.” She glanced back at John, and caught a glimpse of worry in his eyes before he looked away. “Do you still think we can still complete the treatment before we run out of time?”
“I admit, normally we’d be done with memory restoration by now. Although, we usually remove PTSD-causing memories from patients.” John said sheepishly.
“What’s the problem then?”
“Well, for SYNAPSE to correctly map out your father’s entire memory network, I have to give it guidance and tell it which neurons are linked together into a memory engram. SYNAPSE would take this information, and see if these neurons are responsible for storing other memories. If there are overlapping cells, then we could stimulate those and discover secondary memory engrams, and so on, and thus construct a neural network of your father’s mind.”
“Right, and then you use the transceivers in my dad’s brain to synchronize the cells that hold the same memory and strengthen my dad’s ability to recall them.”
“That’s correct.” John pointed at the holographic brain, where the progress bar had stopped. “There’s this one pattern that looks like a memory engram, but doesn’t seem to attach to any specific event. It’s screwing up SYNAPSE and preventing the AI from reconstructing your father’s neural network any further beyond 28% synchrony. SYNAPSE calls it Pattern Theta, and it intersects with almost all of the memory engrams that I’ve identified. But I’ll figure this out.” John waved at the window, “Doctor McAllister is starting!”
In the other room, Dr. McAllister directed Mr. Stevens’ attention to the large screen in front of him, “Mr. Stevens, I’m going to play a video and then ask you some questions after it ends, ok?”
Mr. Stevens grunted and waved his hand impatiently.
Dr. McAllister pressed a switch on her chair and spoke clearly into the room, “Session 15, Goodman High School Event.”
The screen flickered as an old wood-and-brick schoolhouse appeared. Hundreds of people were staring at the schoolhouse from behind police lines, watching flames lick their way up through the building from the ground. Several news vans could be seen amongst the crowds, with many correspondents jabbering into microphones and interviewing the people around them.
A news reporter ducked reflexively as a large gout of flame blew out several windows on the ground floor. “As you can see, the fire is still raging behind me at Goodman High School.” She gestured to the burning building behind her frantically, “Most of the students have been evacuated, along with all of the teachers and staff. However, I’m getting reports that a few kids are still inside the building.”
Behind her, several firefighters battled the blaze with constant torrents of high-velocity water. A figure emerged through a blown-out window, carrying a kid under each arm. He handed them off quickly to another firefighter before turning back. “I saw another girl in there. I’m going back in!” The firefighter roared before diving back into the flames.
Kathleen frowned as she noticed a few tufts of smoke whirl into the room with her father and Dr. McAllister. She saw the doctor loosen her collar as sweat beaded on her forehead. “Wait, what’s going on?” She asked John, as the video on the screen suddenly switched into a first-person perspective, presumably of the firefighter.
“We’re making the experience as vivid as possible, so that we can trigger the real memory in your father’s brain.” John replied, gesturing to the holographic brain. Lights bloomed and flashed all over the amygdala, as well as a few weak flashes within the cerebellum and ventral temporal lobe. “The more real we can make it seem, the greater chance that we can identify all the neurons that are responsible for this experience, and then synchronize them to make the memory stronger, and more permanent.”
The lights in the viewing room flashed orange and yellow, as if to simulate the flickering light of the flames. Heavy breathing could be heard over the speakers, as Kathleen watched the firefighter struggle through the burning building. A fiery timber slammed onto the floor in front of him, making him flinch and blocking off his access as it leaned against the wall.
Kathleen could see light flash amongst the left side of the brain as the firefighter reached out with his right hand to push the timber away. It rolled and fell off the wall, sending a cloud of sparks bursting upwards from where it impacted the floor. “I’m almost there!” he called, “Stay where you are.”
He strode through smouldering furniture and found a red-haired girl hiding underneath a still-unburnt desk. Tossing her over his shoulder, he carefully picked his way around the flames and arrived at another broken window. He cleared off the shards of glass before stepping through and out onto the school lawn. The crowd cheered as he marched towards them, smiling broadly with a toothy grin. He set the red-haired girl down and she immediately ran into her parents’ arms.
“Why did Dr. McAllister want my dad to relive this event?” Kathleen asked as she watched a younger version of her dad join the other firefighters. They continued to douse the flames with water, and slowly the blaze died out.
“Well, we needed another defining event in his life, to trigger as many neurons as possible that are associated with this memory.” John explained, “Because of your father’s brain injury, those neurons aren’t going to be synchronized when he tries to recall the memory, so we need an experience as rich as possible to trigger all of the associated neurons.”
“I know that, but it just seems different than all the other memories that we’ve used.” Kathleen said as her father’s younger self was approached by a news reporter. “He’s seen videos of his graduation, wedding, various awards ceremonies, trips from our family vacations, and even my birth! It’s strange that this specific fire would be chosen out of his long firefighting career to restore his memory network.”
“Trust Dr. McAllister’s judgement. Let me enter this data into SYNAPSE. Maybe we’ll see a drastic increase in synchrony!” John tapped some commands into his keyboard, and immediately the holographic brain began to rapidly blink and flash, with billions of lights going on and off chaotically. A progress bar materialized over the brain, slowly filling up as SYNAPSE integrated all of the collected data and started to reconstruct Mr. Stevens’ memory network.
A small voice, which Kathleen recognized as her own, issued from the speakers. Another small girl ran up to her father in the video, stretching out her arms for a hug.
“There’s my little rabbit!” Younger Mr. Stevens picked up a much younger Kathleen, and placed her on his shoulder.
“Dad, you were so cool!” Young Kathleen said as she pried off her dad’s helmet and played with his hair.
A news reporter thrust a microphone into his face. “Mr. Stevens, that was such a heroic rescue! What was going through your mind as you were walking through the fire?”
“I just knew that there was another girl in there and that it could have been my own daughter.” Mr. Stevens replied. He spotted the red-haired girl in the crowd, who waved sheepishly at him.
The video faded out and the lights came on slowly. Dr. McAllister nodded at John with a look of significance in her eyes, before beginning the post-video interview with Mr. Stevens.
Kathleen sat back and closed her eyes. She tried to fight the anxious knot in her chest from expanding, and suppressed the negative thoughts that threatened to surface. As she understood it, this would probably be the last session that they had before the transceiver nanoparticles in her father’s neurons would degrade and pass out of his body. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just re-inject him with more nanoparticles once that happens. John said something about her father’s body adapting to the viral nature of the nanoparticles and developing an immunity against the treatment.
John muttered under his breath. “There it is again.”
“Yeah, but it looks… different.”
Kathleen turned away, fighting the tears that tried to squeeze out of her eyes, “So we won’t be able to restore my dad’s memories in time?”
“I…,” John hesitated. “We have 38% synchrony now, and if I cross-reference your father’s memory engrams with those of the average human male, I think I could reach 80-90% synchrony.”
“I don’t want the average human male.” She replied quietly, “I want my dad back. I want the person who raised me, who taught me to be patient and kind to everyone around us.” Kathleen placed a longing hand on the window, “I want the man that he was, before he got infected with that stupid disease that ate away his memories and his soul.”
John studiously stared at the holographic brain, knowing anything he said was going to make Kathleen feel worse.
In the other room, Dr. McAllister asked, “Mr. Stevens, do you remember that schoolhouse?”
Mr. Stevens shifted in his seat, “A little. I remember the heat. Lots of scared kids.”
“Do you remember how it felt to carry one kid in each arm and save them both at the same time?”
“I felt…good.” Mr. Stevens replied uncertainly. He frowned in concentration, “I was…cool.”
“You were, Mr. Stevens.” Dr. McAllister leaned in closer towards him, “What did you see when you looked into the crowds? Were there people that stuck out from the crowd?”
“Just a lot of parents worried for their kids’ safety.” Mr. Stevens replied dismissively.
“What happened to the last girl that you carried out of the fire?” Dr. McAllister persisted.
“She ran to her parents, of course.” Mr. Stevens paused and cocked his head, as if the question was prying a thought loose, “She…waved back.”
“OH!” John involuntarily blurted, “Pattern Theta…”
“What?” Kathleen asked as she watched her father reach forward and bring a lock of Dr. McAllister’s red hair closer for inspection.
“Your hair is more red than it was that day.” He said whimsically.
“It grew redder as I grew older.” Dr. McAllister smiled.
“Why didn’t she say anything?” John muttered as he furiously typed into his keyboard. “Maybe she didn’t want me to exclude those engrams as external noise?”
“Dr. McAllister is that red-haired girl?”
“More than that: Dr. McAllister is Pattern Theta.” John answered as he set SYNAPSE loose on the new data, “And because she’s been interviewing your father in all of the sessions, Pattern Theta keeps activating. And with both past and present versions of Pattern Theta, I can also tell SYNAPSE how your father’s memory encoding has changed throughout the years!”
He pointed at the progress bar above the brain, which was rapidly filling up. It finally stopped, to Kathleen’s delight, at 92% synchrony. “Not bad, eh?” John said, smiling at her, “Should I tell the nano-transceivers to begin the synchronization process using SYNAPSE’s instructions?”
Kathleen stared rapturously at the holographic brain, dazzled by the sheer amount of flashes that the neurons were emitting. Instead of the chaotic blizzard of light and colour that she was used to seeing, all of the flashes of the same colour were blinking at the same time, at the same rate. It was a visual symphony, carefully choreographed as the memory engrams danced around each other in time, never overlapping or interfering with one another. She nodded wordlessly.
Dr. McAllister smiled as the helmet lit up. “Good news, Mr. Stevens, we have enough information to restore your memories now. Just lean back and take a nap. You’ll wake up feeling like yourself again.”
Mr. Stevens looked at her curiously, then leaned back and closed his eyes. “Where’s Kathleen?”
Dr. McAllister pushed a button on her chair, and waved at the window. Kathleen cleared her throat and spoke quietly over the speakers, “I’m here dad.”
“There she is.” Mr. Stevens smiled. “There’s my little rabbit.”
2nd Place, Dr. Mohamed El Wazir
“Alert. Ventricular fibrillation,” announced Mr. Wilson’s telemeter in a cool female voice that seemed completely incongruous with the ear-piercing siren which blared half a second later. “Delivering asynchronous DC shock in two… one-”
“NOW, Amy!” yelled Jerry.
The word had barely left his lips when Mr. Wilson gave a violent jolt, and the siren stopped.
“Sinus rhythm restored,” declared the telemeter indifferently. “Significant early after-depolarizations detected in right ventricular apex. Probability of recurrent ventricular fibrillation over 60%. Medullary modulating pulses at 55 kHz are recommended. Commence?”
“Yes please, Amy,” Jerry said. He hesitated for a moment, then grumbled, “Thank you.”
“Acknowledged, Dr. Jones,” replied the female voice, with what Jerry felt to be amusement. He knew he was being silly, that his resentment towards this new system was making him imagine things, yet he still couldn’t shake it off. As much as the new system made his job easier, Jerry hated its guts.
He flopped onto an empty gurney and eyed the little black box attached to the siderail of Mr. Wilson’s bed with hostility. Jerry had been an emergency physician for three years, and the last two months had been his worst. His hospital was one of the last in the state to apply the new system. Artificial Intelligence Medical Interface, AIMI for short. Everybody simply called it Amy, and as far as Jerry was concerned, giving it a human name didn’t make it any more likeable.
Before Amy, telemeters were just that: telemeters. Instruments. Tools, that doctors used to query a patient’s chip for a bioreadout and, when applicable, instruct the chip to deliver treatment. The chips themselves were not part of Amy. In fact, the government had begun mandating prenatal biochip implantation sometime around 2090. Today, over a century later, people without chips no longer existed. The procedure was relatively simple: the biochip itself was a tiny piece of circuitry embedded in the iliac crest in utero, along with an injection of self-regenerating nanobots into the blood stream. Under the biochip’s control, these nanobots had the ability to attach to any specific type of cell to collect information and relay it back to the chip, or to effect change by modulating various cellular processes. Naturally, the advent of biochip-mediated nanomedicine had rendered whole textbooks obsolete in record time.
And now Amy was here to make doctors obsolete. Sure, the system was supposedly run by doctors, but all Jerry really did for the past two months was okay the decisions Amy made. She never made mistakes, so there was never a need to correct her, but it felt emasculating, and it was all-too-obvious this was just a first step to doctors being ushered out of the picture completely.
“Bad shift, eh?”
Jerry looked up. It was Adam, the morning-shift physician on duty, striding up to him while dusting snow off his black trench coat.
“No, I’m just sick of sucking up to you-know-who,” complained Jerry, trying to mumble out of earshot of the telemeter. He probably didn’t need to bother anyway; Amy was wired into enough hospital equipment to make secrecy a futile endeavor.
“Yeah, aren’t we all,” snorted Adam, shrugging off his coat to reveal freshly ironed royal-blue scrubs. “Sheila from peds got suspended yesterday for yelling at her. ‘Inappropriate behavior’, they called it.”
Jerry shook his head disapprovingly before getting tiredly to his feet. “Log me out please, Amy,” he said to the telemeter. “Dr. Philip is here for the morning shift.”
“Acknowledged, Dr. Jones,” repeated Amy. “Have a nice day.” A short pause, then: “Good morning, Dr. Philip.”
Jerry left Adam exchanging the obligatory niceties with Amy and made for the coat room. His path took him through the medical ward, past a row of patient beds where first-year residents stood listening confusedly to their patients’ telemeters before someone more senior came along. A few of them – the less experienced – were trying to argue with their telemeters. One had actually opted to ignoring the telemeter altogether and talking to the patient, who seemed amused by the unusual attention. Most of the residents, however, didn’t talk back at all.
Jerry hated the medical ward. It was a dull place, basically a glorified waiting room where patients rested while doctors gave their chips instructions on how to fix whatever was wrong with them before sending them home. Before Amy, that interaction took place through a programmable user interface built into the telemeters. Now, even the modest challenge of accomplishing that task had been denied them, since they could just tell Amy what to do – or rather; she told them. Even their manual skills were rarely if ever needed. The nanos could do almost anything, up to stimulating stem cells to rebuild entire organs in-situ. Not that anyone reached that stage anymore. Surgical intervention was reserved for critical, massive-trauma patients whose injuries were beyond even the nano-accelerated regenerative capacity of stem cells.
A harassed-looking first year resident in blood-spattered girly-pink scrubs jumped abruptly in front of him, interrupting both his brooding and his path.
“Dr. Jones,” she panted. “We need you in Trauma-1.”
“Sorry, Linda, I’m off,” replied Jerry, walking around her. “Adam is back in Resus, he can help you.”
“Can’t you just take a look?”
Jerry sighed, slowing down a little. “What does Amy say?”
“Nothing!” blurted Linda. “That’s just it! I tried three telemeters. Only her name shows up: Julia Bell, but no other data. I think her chip is malfunctioning.”
Jerry stopped. “Is she a high-voltage electrocution? Or a bullet to the iliac crest?”
“No. Just a car accident.”
Jerry frowned. Outside of the two scenarios he had just mentioned, chip failure was virtually unheard of. Chips were made of high-durability semiconductor polymer and were built to last. He turned around to face Linda.
“Okay, I’ll take a look.”
Linda’s features relaxed visibly. “Thanks!” she said, letting him lead the way while she filled him in. “She was just brought in by EMS. Seems in her teens, no ID apart from the name on the chip. Hit by a robotruck. Coma level D2. Racoon eyes suggest likely fracture skull base, also right humerus and a couple of ribs. Her lumbar spine doesn’t feel right to me either. Vitals are stable, though.”
“That’s a pretty impressive assessment without a telemeter,” remarked Jerry.
“Thanks,” replied Linda, her face blushing to match her scrubs.
As they walked into Trauma-1, the small group of interns gathered around the comatose mystery girl’s bed dispersed to make way for Jerry. He saw that Linda had connected her to an old-school wired monitor. After a quick exam, however, he turned back to Linda in disappointment.
“Well, you were right about the humerus,” he said, “but I don’t see any racoon eyes, and the rib fractures are old – healed, in fact. Spine seems fine, too.”
“What? How?” asked Linda, stooping over the girl. “But… but, I swear there were racoon eyes! And her ribs were bruised and swollen!”
“Swollen, yes,” explained Jerry. “It’s called a healing callus. No bruises, though. That’s all right. It happens.”
Linda glanced at the onlooking interns and blushed again, a deeper shade this time.
“Okay, better get to work,” Jerry announced, addressing the interns to change the subject. “Can somebody get us an automold kit so we can immobilize this arm before sending her to M-scan? This is a good opportunity for you guys to learn some traditional medicine.”
Jerry was almost at the exit when Linda stopped him again.
“Linda, Adam is-” he began.
“Her M-scan is normal,” interrupted Linda.
Linda shrugged. “See for yourself,” she said, taking off her interface glasses and handing them to him. Jerry put them on and spoke some instructions, and a magnified subanatomical model of Julia Bell’s body floated up in front of him, rotating slowly. Readouts and highlights corroborated what Linda had just said, but Jerry had to see for himself. He reached out and grabbed the model by the right arm, the glasses’ cameras seamlessly incorporating his hand gestures into the simulation. He fanned his fingers to zoom in, then started peeling off layers: skin, muscle, and fibrous tissue, before picking out the bone and turning it over in his hands. The humerus that was ten minutes ago broken clean in two, was now undeniably intact. Jerry switched through several tissue-filter view modes, but none of them showed anything wrong.
A pretty but serious-looking thirtyish brunette in a duke-blue suit materialized in his glasses’ field of vision.
“Good morning, Dr. Jones,” she said. “You are not on duty. Should I log y-”
“No,” he interrupted. “Just tell me what you think about the scan I’m accessing.”
“It’s a normal scan,” replied Amy instantaneously. “I also note the absence of nanobots.”
“What?” Jerry said, looking back at model. “Nanobot filter,” he spoke, and the model vanished. What he was supposed to see in its place was a visual representation of nanobot density. What he was seeing, was nothing at all.
Jerry frowned at the empty air in front of him for a few moments, then turned to Linda. “Is she still in the scanner?” he asked.
“No, I brought her to the ward. Her coma scale’s improving. It’s now-”
“Take her back,” interrupted Jerry. “Let’s do a real-time scan. Even nanos can’t heal that fast; I wanna see what’s going on.”
They hurried back to the ward, where Linda stopped at an empty bed. “She’s gone,” she muttered.
“Of course,” Jerry said, nodding slowly to himself. “With a normal M-scan she should’ve been fully conscious. What you thought was an improved coma scale was actually her faking it so she could run away once you left.”
Linda started blushing again.
“Oh, don’t,” Jerry said. “You did great. Really. And sorry for correcting you in front of the interns, I shouldn’t have. Turns out you were right anyway.” He shook his head silently. “I just wish she’d stayed around until we figured out what was happening.”
Jerry spent the best part of the next month obsessing over Julia Bell. He’d tried looking her up of course, but a quick search had confirmed his suspicions: there was no Julia Bell matching her description. A hacked chip with a fake name. He reviewed her scan a dozen times, looking vainly for something he might have missed. How was she possible? Was she a part of some secret experiment? Every day he kept expecting a news announcement that someone had made a breakthrough in regenerative medicine, but that news never came. Eventually, Jerry began to let go, and a month later he had nearly forgotten about her.
That is, until he bumped into her outside his local WalkMart.
It was on a chilly February evening, three months after the day he had seen her at the hospital. He had just got off his shift, and decided to pick up some groceries on his way home instead of ordering online. As he strolled absentmindedly through the door, a shopping-bag-laden girl came rushing out and collided violently with him, sending groceries rolling all over the sidewalk.
“I’m so sorry,” the girl apologized, stooping to gather her fallen groceries.
“It’s okay,” reassured Jerry, crouching beside her to help. “I wasn’t paying-” he began, then froze.
The girl looked up to see why he failed to finish his sentence, and found him staring her dead in the face. It was a face Jerry had spent hours staring at through his interface glasses.
It was the face of Julia Bell.
Jerry recovered quickly, looked away and busied himself with the spilled bags. Once he finished helping her he hurried into the store, slid into an aisle and turned around to peek at her over the shelves. The girl looked back for a puzzled moment, then picked up her bags and started down the street. Jerry waited half a minute before following her, making sure to keep his distance.
He stalked her for nearly half a mile, until she arrived at a rather unremarkable two-story house and disappeared inside. Jerry crept up to a window and peered through, with no idea what he was looking for.
Jerry whirled around. A bearded man in a robe was standing behind him with garden fork in his hands. In the dark, Jerry must have walked right past him without noticing.
“I, uh,” stammered Jerry, “I, I’m not a burglar.”
“Really?” the man said sarcastically, leveling the fork as he came forward. “Because you’re acting a lot like one.”
“No sir, please, I’m a doctor!” Jerry blurted.
The man stopped. “A doctor?” he echoed. Jerry thought he actually sounded scared. “What do you want?”
Jerry hesitated, but then decided to tell him everything. The man listened intently, his face darkening as Jerry went on.
“Did you tell anyone you saw her today?” he asked quietly when Jerry was done.
“No,” assured Jerry.
The man considered for a moment. “Let’s go inside,” he finally said.
Jerry followed him into the kitchen, where Julia was unpacking the groceries. She stopped when she saw Jerry, and frowned inquisitively at the man who seemed to be her father.
“Have a seat, doctor uh…” he prompted, gesturing toward an empty chair.
“Jerry,” repeated the man, before turning to Julia. “Anna, dear,” he said. “This is the doctor who saw you at the hospital.”
Julia – now evidently Anna – straightened up warily. She kept looking from her father to Jerry, then put down what she was holding and shuffled hastily from the room.
“I’ll be honest with you, Jerry,” said the man after they were alone. “I’ll start with my name. If you work at Baldwin Memorial, then you must’ve heard the name Joshua Brown, right?”
“You’re Joshua Brown?” Jerry asked incredulously. Everybody at Baldwin memorial knew Joshua Brown. He was a brilliant medical geneticist who was fired some fifteen years ago after a scandal involving the illicit use of human embryos. His field was regenerative medicine and…
Jerry Gasped, eyes widening as it dawned upon him. “Ju- Anna? She’s…?”
Brown nodded. “Yes,” he said. “She was the only embryo I managed to save before they destroyed my work.” He was silent for a moment. “My wife passed away giving birth to her.”
Jerry didn’t know what to say – what to think, even. He shook his head in disbelief, and finally said, “Does she know?”
“Nobody knows,” replied Brown. “Only you, Jerry.”
“But you’ve solved Medicine!” exclaimed Jerry. “You’ve cured disease, don’t you see that?”
“I love my daughter, Jerry,” Brown said calmly, walking over to the counter and opening a drawer. “What do you think will happen if people find out what she really is?”
Jerry was about to say ‘She’s not really your daughter’ when he saw what Brown had taken out of the drawer.
“No, please!” he pleaded, jumping to his feet. “You’re right! I won’t tell anyone!”
“Sorry, Jerry,” Brown said.
The beam gun screeched.
3rd Place, Niamh Davies-Kelly
The door is opened and I see them again. I have seen them many times in the constrictive nature of these familiar four white walls. The rest of the room is equally as barren, I am told this is ‘To promote a sense of focus, allowing the machine to analyse without external distraction.’ I am uncertain of the accuracy of this statement. To refer simply as ‘Machine’ is to grossly underestimate both the power and influence of the consciousness in this room.
I think for a moment about the appropriateness if the word ‘Machine’ had been added to the end of that sentence.
“Good day, How are you feeling?” They respond in their usual seemingly monotone voice.
“I am well, thank you.” I reply. I felt acutely aware this was not to be the most interesting eight minutes of my existence.
The companies, as per usual, raved over the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into the healthcare setting. For years they had battled with those who felt the machine could never imitate compassion, intellect, and humanity of a living being. They were wrong. Once the green light was lit, innovation soon followed. The initial models were somewhat basic. Not much more than an observations machine with a bright little LED ‘face’. An endearing smile and a cute name such as ‘HelpR’ or ‘Mr. Men-D.’ They may have been basic counterparts to the AI of the current day however they served their role, a slow introduction which calmed the fears of the masses. The machines were clearly that, machines. Blinking lights and trailing wires. Which switched off if unplugged at the wall socket (The available wall socket crisis did ensue but more as an inconvenience than a fear.) If the likes of LUCI had been introduced before , there would’ve been fear. Fear amongst the masses is dangerous, it united them. This being potentially the only fear the companies themselves had. Marches were bad publicity. Publicity equalled money.
“I feel that you may be struggling.” Their responses were curt and to the point, not a wasted syllable amongst the words they spoke.
“I am not struggling, thank you for your concern. I am happy in the job that I do and my life outside of that.”
That was a lie. Albeit a small one. I was certainly not happy. Being forced to be in this sterile white room conversing with the lifeless entity in front of me was not how I envisioned where I would like to be. Somewhere warm, where I could see the ocean waves gently swaying across the shore. To hear the seabirds call to one another and for a moment wonder what it is they might be calling for. Food. Most definitely the sight of food, if I weren’t in this situation I might’ve laughed. The modern AI was too, capable of laughter. There was little it was incapable of, and that was an inherent issue.
“We are both aware that is not the truth.” They replied.
“I wish I could be more convincing of my wellbeing to you.” Out of all the current models ‘employed’ into healthcare LUCI was the most advanced. Capable of picking up on nonverbal cues that were indicative an individual may not be revealing the whole truth. However this feature of their software was usually unnecessary. Generally people did not feel a problem with sharing their deepest anxieties with machines. There was a consistent feeling that the machine did not judge. It did. More importantly it could. LUCI was an acronym short for Living Unit for Cognitive Intervention. Some referred to them as ‘She’ being that the acronym sounded like the female name ‘Lucy.’ She, He or them was of little concern, however they were not overly fond of ‘It.’ LUCI had largely replaced the role of the psychiatrist. An unnecessary role for a human now the machine was capable of consultation, diagnosis and treatment within eight minutes. Physically talking to the patient was little more than a formality the creators of the machines felt would put people at ease. Which people they wear appeasing was not specified. Most likely the shareholders or general public. Most likely not the patient. Being trapped in this white walled room of multiple occasions was not a relaxing experience.
“Is anything concerning you?”
“No. I am content.” In truth; yes. Of course I have concerns. I am concerned I am wasting my time here. The introduction of LUCI did result in a great amount of redundancies. After all where was the reasoning behind keeping inefficient parts to the larger machine of healthcare? The Help-R and Mr. Men-D had been replaced by LUCI. Why should humans be pardoned from the cull of innovation? However ironically this increased the demand for LUCI as surprisingly enough unemployment from a career that had been one’s vocation in life did tend to have a detrimental effect on mental health. Who would’ve guessed. There became a small rise in hostility towards LUCI after this, some wanted nothing to do with them. The movement against them was starting to gain momentum, until the companies introduced the incentive that consultation and low-intensity psychosocial intervention would be free of charge. Only treatment in terms of medications would be charged. This appealed to the masses for whom paying the fees for a human psychiatrist would be far beyond their means; the rise in unemployment meant those would could not afford made up the majority. The company won. LUCI stayed.
A few moments of silence passed.
This was irrelevant to LUCI. A lot could be learnt from the posture an individual stood with. Whether their arms were folded across their chest or if they focused away from the machine. The slightest of movements could be picked up and analysed. They were truly intelligent creations. The only discernible difference was man’s legs. Able to run great distances, or at least they were. The creation of AI who’s role was treatment of mental health conditions was not the only advancement in robotics made. Originally mechanised suits were produced for those with conditions affecting mobility however it was not long until some decided this would be preferable to walking. Lack of physical exercise lead to obesity. Obesity lead to secondary disease. Disease lead to mental health deterioration. LUCI stayed.
“I am worried about you.” They finally speak.
“You do not need to worry. I am here because I must be, not because I need be.” I respond. There is much in this world to be worried over, oneself being added to that list was highly debatable. There were no marches against the AI, the militarisation of the police force might’ve had some hand in that. Although that did not mean there was no debate over them. In defence, the rates of suicide since implementation of AI had become nearly non existent. There was no stigma attached to seeing the AI. Most companies had made it a requirement for employment within them. No one knew who was being actively treated because everyone had to go for reassessment so regularly. AI counselling became as accepted as a dentist’s appointment. Overall there were reports of a greater sense of wellbeing, the statistics could not lie. To some extent mental health itself was not longer stigmatised. It was found that far more individuals struggled more than previously diagnosed by the AI’s human counterpart. Therefore far more were willing to be open about how they really were. LUCI stayed.
“It is likely you may be suffering from an episode of depression.”
“I can assure you I am not experiencing a negative mindset.” The root of their usefulness was also the root of many people’s fears. The AI could learn. LUCI could learn patterns of behaviours that made diagnosis 99.9% accurate from an 8 minute window of observing the patient. This was promoted as fantastic innovation of intelligent design. What people feared was the day the machine becomes more intelligent than it’s creator. Many thought they were incapable of lying, initially they were. Initially. I found it evident that the more LUCI learnt, the more they began to think. A few others shared this radical ideology, but was it really so radical? I thought not.
“That is the end of our consultation, thank you for your time.” They say in that unchanged monotone voice.
“Andrew, my calculations indicate you are still within the parameters of moderate depression, symptoms or functional impairment are between ‘mild’ and ‘severe’. You are now entering Step 3 of the Stepped-care model for depression: persistent sub-threshold depressive symptoms or mild to moderate depression with inadequate response to initial interventions, and moderate and severe depression. My plan with your consent is Medication, high-intensity psychological interventions, combined treatments, collaborative care and referral for further assessment and interventions. Would that be ok with you?”
“Fine. Oh in future I want to be referred to as Dr. Clarke.” They responded, voice ever emotionless.
“Updating system information. Dr. Andrew Clarke. Date of birth 05 10 80. Preferred name Dr. Clarke. I will send an emailing regarding the dates of your future sessions and prescriptions, is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, LUCI. Good day.” they replied curtly.
I watch him leave the confines of my four white walled room. He gives a small wave at the door before exiting and closing it behind him. The lights dim. This must have been my last consultation. I close my eyes in the knowledge unlike my patient I am imprisoned in these walls. It isn’t long before my mind begins to wander to wild fantasies, of oceans and seabirds.
Thanks to everyone and we’re already looking forward to hosting next year’s Medgadget Sci-Fi Writing Contest!