AI and the Rise of Babybots: Book Review of Louisa Hall’s Speak
By Katie Strong, PhD
“Why should I be punished for the direction of our planet’s spin? With or without my intervention, we were headed towards robots,” writes Stephen Chinn, a main character in the novel Speak by Louisa Hall. Stephen has been imprisoned for his creation of robots deemed illegally lifelike, and in a brief moment of recrimination when writing his memoir from prison, he continues, “You blame me for the fact that your daughters found their mechanical dolls more human than you, but is it my fault, for making a doll too human? Or your fault, for being too mechanical?”
|Alan Turing image courtesy of flikr user Steve Montana Photography
Amongst these four stories are letters from Alan Turing to the mother of his deceased childhood friend. These fictional letters follow the real story of Alan Turing as he moves from a student at the Sherborne School to his eventual suicide with cyanide poisoning. Alan is the only character based on a real person, and his story haunts the fictional portions of this book with the reminder that the history of babybots could convincingly be rooted in our own reality and history.
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.