A backstage entrance into the world of neuroscience and academia.

Science/Fiction: Eliza

Today is a bit of a different topic. Generally, I like to discover whether or not some media are scientifically relevant. Most of the time, science is bent in unusual ways to fit the world or scenario. Sometimes it is just bent. I could also say that some people are too lazy to check the most basic scientific facts, but let’s be honest, that would never happen, right? One could also say everyone is bound to make mistakes at some point, and with this wise answer, I will go to the matter at hand.

So today is different because I am not looking whether or not Eliza is scientifically relevant. Indeed, it is not going so much into scientific details and that is good as I fear it would dilute the message it wants to get through. This message, dear reader, is not scientifically relevant, but it is highly relevant to science. The main message in the end, is one that everyone asks themselves: what would you do?

Just in case you were not sure the tone was more serious than usual, I’ll put this picture here.

To begin with, I have to get some things out of the way. Eliza is not a film, not exactly a book, not exactly a video-game. It is a visual novel. Basically a novel with visuals (not just words) and some interactions asked as prompts to the reader/player. I read through it my way and someone else’s story might end up playing a bit different. Just know that I was under the spell of that story, a story about 34 years old Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, a programmer who created Eliza. Eliza is first presented in the game as a “counselling partner”. Basically, an artificial intelligence (AI) that listens to you and asks you questions to know how you feel and try to help you. It is made clear from the start that Evelyn has gone through some dark times for three years. Yes, we are getting to the point: mental health. Actually, Eliza (the game, not the AI) is about much more than just mental health. It is about the struggles of a demanding job, of trying to make the world a better place and maybe not meeting one’s own expectations.

So as I told you, it is not scientific but it is about science and more. Let’s dive in then!

First things first: Eliza, the AI. It is sold as a “counselling partner” and despite the warnings that it is not to be used as a replacement for a psychologist or psychiatrist, it is clearly what is happening. The lower cost brings people in, they then talk about their problems to an AI that listens to them and only ever answers back with questions, except at the end of the consultation where it suggests some medication. It is not meant to replace mental healthcare but this warning appears only before consultations. To me, right from the start, it looked like an introspection tool and that was more or less later confirmed in the story by Evelyn. She created it to listen to people, not to counsel. She created it with several other colleagues so that people would never feel alone. Among the other programmers, there is Damien and his shadow is still haunting Evelyn. Damien is gone and at the beginning of the game it is not made super clear what happened. What is made clear though, is the workload Damien took on his shoulders and the fact that is death led to several people quitting, including Evelyn.

The message is quite clear and I admire this visual novel for the bleak reality it throws at us. Nobody is ever really blamed for Damien’s death and it does not seem like any actions were taken against the company. The death of an overworked person does not stop Skandha, the start-up developing Eliza. Why, then, is it relevant to academia? Overtime is a fairly accepted practice in academia also and the competitive environment to secure funding leads to a similar culture. Actually, stress among people in academia is quite documented, especially among younger people.

You are supposed to say only the sentences in the “Proxy Response” frame. When did machines start being better at speaking to other human beings than us?

The story asks us one question: you left this world, you are not part of it anymore but it wants you back. Would you go there knowing all the bad things that happen? Would you do that even though it has thrown you into depression? You can move on or you can be part of that project that wants to change the world! I liked that the story asks you the questions but let you find your own answers. For me that was a “no”. I understand the appeal of discovering and creating, I like it, but the ethics behind are also something important to me.

I fear that I can only scratch the surface of the full range of what this story has to offer, so I will look at it from an angle that I generally like, although I am not the most knowledgeable person to talk about it: representation. Generally, one would expect me to complain about the two bosses being male. What else is worth complaining about? Yes! Soren (one of the bosses) wants to hire you and is hitting on you at the same time, which is terribly wrong however you look at it. Also all the female characters have less important positions despite their skills and the amount of effort they put into their jobs. Well, there is quite a bit to complain about, except this time the story is here to mirror reality and make you think about what is happening in start-ups. Well… in start-ups sure, but there is also a parallel in academia.

In the end, I don’t want to spoil much more of the story, I don’t want to remove the appeal of some characters as you discover their problems and their questions. I won’t describe the story under all possible angles and I simply cannot, so I will just take two more dialogues from the game. One that I think is a feeling many have had during their PhD and one that will, I am sure, make some of you smile.

The first dialogue comes up during an Eliza session, a PhD student comes in and says: “But I am still afflicted with this bothersome notion that I’ve missed out on… friendships, relationships, other opportunities…”

The second dialogue appears at the end, when Evelyn remembers being with her friends and this comes up:
“How is your dissertation going?
– Never ask about the dissertation.”

As a bonus, an interview of Matthew Seiji Burns, the writer behind this game.