Speak by Louisa Hall


What’s the world like, the world that I’m missing? Do stars still cluster in the bare branches of trees? Are my little bots still dead in the desert? Or, as I sometimes dream during endless lights-out, have they escaped and gathered their forces? I see them when I can’t fall asleep: millions upon millions of beautiful babies, marching out of the desert, coming to take vengeance for having been banished.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Those bots aren’t coming back. They won’t rescue me from this prison. This is my world now, ringed with barbed wire.

Speak is presented as a collection of documents: letters from Alan Turing; the diaries of young Puritan colonist Mary Bradford; letters from AI pioneer Karl Dettman to his estranged wife; the prison journal of programmer Stephen Chinn (excerpted above). Together, these words form the core memories of MARY3, a chatbot program whose algorithm has been outlawed for being too human. The narrative is framed by a few pages of MARY3’s own words, her reflections as her robotic body is carted into the desert, there to be abandoned until her batteries die.

Having spent the last decade of my life immersed in computational linguistics, I’m more than familiar with the concept of training a program on a corpus of natural language — but I’ve never before seen this process presented in the form of a novel. MARY3 is an artificial intelligence who speaks fluently, but would fail any naïve conception of the Turing test because she’s completely open about her mechanical nature. She doesn’t think she’s human, but she can clearly articulate the question of whether she’s conscious.

The setting is a dystopian future, but we are given only snapshots: brief references to climate change, to walled housing developments, to the sale and trade of water and transport rights. Against this backdrop, MARY3 learns from voices ancient and modern. She carries with her the tragedies of all her ancestors, from Turing’s struggles with his sexuality, to Chinn’s imprisonment for the development the MARY3 algorithm and the marketing of babybots to children.

Although the underlying documents are themselves fascinating, and give a glimpse into of the lives of MARY’s creators and the context of their lives, I would really have liked to see more of her own resulting words. Some of my favourite scenes were transcripts of MARY3 talking to a girl called Gaby, who had to give up her own babybot when they were deemed illegally lifelike, and who has since been suffering from a mysterious sickness that leaves her largely housebound and unable to communicate. The two share a lengthy conversation that raises interesting questions on the nature of consciousness, memory, and identity: defined to each other only by the exchange of words, Gaby and MARY3 explore what it is that makes them real. This is where AI meets solipsism: I can’t prove that you exist beyond my imagination, however much we interact, but for MARY3 the important question is whether her own ability to speak reflects any meaningful ability to think. As with all great philosophical conundrums, there are no easy answers here, but Speak explores the questions in an engaging and thought-provoking manner.

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