Speak Is a Poetic, Plausible Story of Artificial Intelligence in Our Immediate Future

speakThere’s a point early on in Speak, Louisa Hall’s remarkably fresh new novel about artificial intelligence, when Gaby, a sick child mourning the loss of her “babybot”—a doll-like personal robot—figures out how chatbots work. Confined to her room and no longer able to communicate with humans, she talks instead to MARY3, a cloud-based program that is the closest substitute she can find for her missing robot companion. Gaby and MARY3 discuss, among other things, the origins of MARY3’s name (her creator’s wife edited the diary of a pilgrim woman named Mary Bradford; it is suggested diaries preserve an individual’s thought sequences through patterns of words on a page), before moving on to the nature of MARY3’s program. MARY3 remembers everything people say to her and uses an algorithm to choose responses based on her memory of other conversations.

Gaby: So you’re not really a person, you’re a collection of voices.

MARY3: Yes. But couldn’t you say that’s always the case?

Speak argues that it is. The book, a nested set of narratives spanning centuries, tells the story of the babybots’ creation through the journals and letters of their creators. We meet Stephen Chinn, the obsessive genius whose inventions owe more to escapism than Promethean ambition; Ruth and Karl Dettman, the couple who give birth to the first MARY program before their creative differences drive them apart; Mary Bradford, the 17th-century pilgrim child whose parents marry her off at the age of thirteen; and a charming, familiar Alan Turing. Their alternating stories intersect with that of Gaby, who falls sick after the government confiscates all babybots for being “illegally lifelike” and interfering with children’s socialization. Gaby’s illness provides much of the narrative momentum: have she and the other girls been drawn into a hysterical epidemic, or was there something toxic in the babybot replacements? Is the process reversible? Will she ever regain the ability to speak?

There are other stories vying for attention, and they mimic each other by design. An early Turing letter, in which he describes the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…) hints at the book’s structure. Chapters call back to other chapters, yet build on them; lives echo other lives while creating something new. So Mary, the Puritan child traveling to the New World, grows attached to her pet dog instead of her husband, lavishing attention on him despite her spouse’s protestations that animals have no souls, even as Ruth Dettman, in the 1960s, turns away from her husband toward the program they’ve created, and Gaby, in early 21st century Texas, devotes herself to a bot in lieu of human friends. Across time and space, Speak‘s characters struggle to connect.

It’s this problem of connection that makes Speak so new, so unusual, and so necessary. It builds on any number of literary voices—there’s the obvious comparison to Cloud Atlas, which shares a polyphonic structure and lit-SF ambitions; the girl-turns-sickly-when-people-take-her-robot-away plot first appeared in Asimov’s story “Robbie,” which also includes a comment about children who love their dogs more than their fathers—but its focus on the relationships between humans and the computers they talk to feels entirely original.

The line isn’t easy to draw. More than one character describes herself as being computerlike in personality and preoccupations, and when the characters speak, they often do so in a recognizable syntax the reader quickly learns to predict. One of the most effectively devastating moments comes when a character finally omits an anticipated verbal tic, breaking the pattern to illustrate his emotional state more dramatically than the few previous pages of prose ever could. Moreover, as we learn from the frame narrative, the voices are all contained within one of the confiscated babybots: effectively, the entire story is being told by a robot. We find ourselves in a fictional world in which distinctions between human and computerized intelligence increasingly seem…well, artificial.

The babybots may be human-ish (humanesque?), but they’re still not substitutes for humans. Gaby describes a generation of children who grew up with them instead of flesh-and-blood friends. When the bots are taken away, the children do make friends, but never more than one at a time. It might be more accurate to say these lackluster friends are a sorry replacement for the babybots, rather than the other way around, but that doesn’t explain the remorse Chinn feels when he realizes his daughter will never have the kind of chaotic, painful, real childhood he experienced. There’s something lost, Hall suggests, when people turn away from each other toward a machine that can only reflect their own thoughts back at them.

Speak doesn’t resolve the problems it introduces. How could it? Instead, it does something computers are very good at: it follows each story through to its logical, inevitable conclusion. If it also draws us into a meditation on the technology we rely on—the ways we shape it, and the ways it shapes us—if it’s hard to look at the world in quite the same way once you’ve put it down, then that’s a side benefit, and you should consider yourself lucky. It’s always so interesting, listening to strangers’ conversations.

Speak is available now.

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