The Unspoken in Louisa Hall’s SPEAK

What makes intelligence human? That is the unspoken question (branching off into a multitude of streams of related questions) throughout the cooperative narratives that span the course of over 300 years in Speak by Louisa Hall. First comes the diary of Mary Bradford, a young Puritan girl setting sail for the New World with her beloved dog as her companion and her unwanted husband in tow. Next are the letters of renowned inventor and mathematician Alan Turing, who dreamed of a “thinking” machine, to the mother of his schoolmate. Following are the letters of Karl Dettman, a German expat living in the US in the 1960s and programmer of a “speaking” machine, and his wife Ruth, a professor whose interests include the diaries of pioneer women and giving Karl’s machine “memory.” Stephen Chinn writes his memoirs from his prison cell, of how he found Dettman’s machine and gave it “empathy” and put it into a child’s toy for his daughter Ramona. Added to Chinn’s words are chat transcripts from Chinn’s AI and a young girl named Gaby Ann White after the courts banned her babybot and Gaby’s subsequent illness. Finally, the observations of Eva, Gaby’s babybot, as she and several other babybots are hauled to an undisclosed hangar in the desert and abandoned to eventually power down.

In this tale, the technology is not banned because it is too dangerous–for example, in drones or autonomous missiles (real-life technology)–or have too much control with too little transparency–for example in algo trading systems of banks (also real-life technology)–but because it is too lifelike. The software designers and engineers in this book might be male, but those responsible for software configuration and evolution are all female. Karl Dettner creates “language”; Ruth bestows memory. Chinn creates “empathy”; Ramona, Gaby, and the thousands of other little girls bestow qualia. It’s not incorrect to claim that the evolution of Hall’s AI is distinctly female. Not only is the absence of government and corporate research, development, and use of technology apparent, but it is also telling that the banned technology are children’s toys (which are then blamed for the trauma of separation); children, the group of humans whose movement and behavior are most sternly policed. Also consider that the government already allows nonhuman entities legal operations in our society while enjoying human rights and protections. But we don’t call them robots–we call them corporations. (These last two statements aren’t fiction, by the way, they are fact). The mirror Hall holds up to our society isn’t cracked: we are.

What is consciousness? Is it awareness (which MARY3/Eva clearly have)? Is it memory (MARY2)? Is it language (MARY)? It is the capacity for emotion (Ralph)? Does the ability to form a strong emotional bond with a nonhuman entity invalidate the emotion? (My love for my own dog despite her trash-eating habits says, “no!”) Is a society that tears emotionally developing children away from their cherished companions, driving them into a (literal) paralyzing grief, a “good” society? Or is it one that is marginalizing another group of humans by enforcing trauma upon them “for their own good” with no consideration for their own unique experiences? (Society, please understand children.)

And finally, whatever became of Mary Bradford? (The answer is obvious: she’s immortal. Mary Bradford in every place, please!)

On Thursday, September 24th at 7:00 p.m., the New & Noteworthy Book Club will explore this and more when we discuss Speak by Louisa Hall

– Jan

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