By Katie Strong, PhD
The dolls that resemble humans are referred to as “babybots,” robots with minds that deviate only 10% from human thought and have the ability to process sensory information. Speak tells the story of how babybots come into being and then describes the aftermath once they have been deemed harmful and removed from society. The book moves between character’s stories taking place in four different time periods, from the 16th century to 2040, and the plot is told through letters, court transcripts, and diary selections from five main characters. Through these various first-person views, pieces of the story behind babybots and the rise of artificial intelligence are made clear.
Around the same time that Stephen toils in prison writing his memoir, a young girl named Gaby is slowly losing her ability to speak and move following the mandated removal of her babybot. An outbreak, characterized by stuttering and physical rigidity, has begun among children whose babybots have been ripped away. We read Gaby’s struggle to cope with this loss as she communicates with her replacement robot in court transcripts meant to prove Stephen’s innocence against his charges: the knowing creation of mechanical life, the intent to endanger to morals of children, and the continuous violence against the family.
Through the three remaining voices, Alan Turing, The Dettmans, and Mary Bradford, we are swept backwards in time. While Stephen is credited and punished for his creation of babybots, traveling through this timeline, it becomes clear that he alone is not responsible. Stephen’s babybot is based on a program known as MARY3. Stephen programs MARY3 to display empathy, error, and personality from MARY2, a robot with extensive memory created by the scientist Karl Dettman and his wife Ruth. Through a series of letters that chronicle the dissolution of the couple’s marriage, we learn about the development of MARY2 and their conflicting ideas about memory and artificial intelligence. MARY2 is able to recite entire personal histories, including the diary of Mary Bradford, a pilgrim traveling to Massachusetts in the 16th century. Excerpts of Mary’s diary reveal her thoughts, and although her existence obviously predates computers, she writes of seeking solace in a nonhuman and then deeply contemplates whether this companion, her dog, has a soul like hers.
|Alan Turing image courtesy of flikr user Steve Montana Photography|
The book does not contain an evil scientist taking over the world with robots or a swarm of computers extinguishing humankind. The most villainous of characters is Stephen, but MARY3 is partially a result of a well intentioned father. Much of the action that could have filled an entire book – the height of babybots, the decision to remove them from society, and the arrest of their creator – is actually omitted and only alluded to and foreshadowed. Speak takes a subtler approach, and instead, more chillingly, slowly chronicles the destruction of single individuals and their relationships as society grapples with the emerging role of technology. Stephen is enamored with his new wife, but eventually becomes so engrossed in the creation of MARY3 that even her ovarian cancer diagnosis cannot snap him out of his stupor. Gaby and her classmates are truly unable to make human connections, and are even barred from doing so when quarantined. To alleviate the symptoms of the outbreak, it is decided that children should be given a replacement robot with only slightly less capability than those determined to be too harmful. In lieu of a climactic scene involving babybots, one of the more dramatic images is Karl finally making the decision to leave Ruth after he feels she has completely shut him out of their marriage. Speak is at its best with these heartbreaking moments of splintered affection and love. Big picture details are mostly omitted; there is hardly mention of logistics behind the removal of babybots or how governments are ensuring illegal robots do not appear again. Hints of apocalyptic events, including the lack of water and the destruction of beaches, do appear in the sections taking place in the 21st century, but feel like unnecessary and jarring details in the backdrop of these deeply personal stories.
Speak may be a warning letter of sorts, but it is a beautiful and poetic one. Hall is a published poet and the lyrical presentation of philosophical ideas in her book is a testament to her ability. Interspersed with the movement of the plot, the characters contemplate the Fibonacci sequence, theory of relativity, the passage of time, memory in artificial intelligence, nonhuman souls, loneliness, and love. All of the characters in Speak are trying to say something, and with Hall’s prose behind their voice, they demand to be listened to.
There is a 6th voice to this narrative that is not recorded in the character list at the beginning of the book – the voice of Eva, Gaby’s babybot. She opens the novel as she describes being taken away to a warehouse to live out the rest of her battery life and the novel ends as her time is running out. She makes it clear that her voice is a combination of all the voices that have come together to make her – from Mary Bradford to Stephen Chinn, and she will continue to remember until she no longer can. She realizes what the humans in the novel seem unable to comprehend – there is a group of humans reflected in every piece of technology. Stephen and Eva may take the fall for humankind by spending their respective remaining time in prison and a warehouse, but as Speak makes it clear, both the creator and creation know that technology advances at the speed which society allows.
Speak was released in the summer of 2015 and is currently for sale.
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Strong, K. (2016). AI and the Rise of Babybots: Book Review of Louisa Hall’s Speak. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/01/ai-and-rise-of-babybots-book-review-of.html