Writing about exceptionally smart artificial intelligence in this space in April, Sonny Bunch argued that “that best-case scenario is that it will simply leave us alone. That it will grow up, decide humanity is beneath it and leave us be, just as we choose to leave the random ant pile in the woods alone.” When we sympathize with the robots, there tends to be something a tad self-flagellating about it. Creatures like Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot in “Ex Machina,” are rightful vengeance upon us for the way we’ve treated women, people of color and members of other oppressed classes.
Louisa Hall’s “Speak,” which was released today, is audacious enough to argue that both our fear and our guilt are excuses that allow us to ignore an even more dangerous idea: that if the machines rise, they might govern our world better than we do. Her book, told in a cacophony of voices, takes us into the near future, when humans have warehoused artificially intelligent robots. These robots didn’t rebel or harm humanity: They out-competed it. Children became so attached to their bots that they began exhibiting autism-like systems.
“And what if they took over? What if they relieved us of power?” muses Hall’s character Stephen R. Chinn, who is in jail for inventing those robots. “We tend to assume that sentient machines would be inevitably demonic. But what if they were responsible leaders? Could they do much worse than we’ve done? They would immediately institute a system of laws. The construction would be algorithmic. They would govern the world according to functions and the tenets their programmers gave them. [Alan] Turing, who decoded the Nazis and quoted ‘Snow White,’ would be given a position of power. Dettman would sit at his right hand, conscientiously objecting, consulting his wife, imagining pilgrims. Every loving child who ever whispered words to a bot would be given a place in the senate. What havoc, I wonder, could such government wreak.”
Chinn’s babybots draw their personality from a variety of sources, united by the low value placed on them in the past.
There’s Turing himself, who Hall imagines speaking through a variety of letters he might have written to the parents of Christopher Morcom, his great friend from the Sherborne School. “How can we ever tell that the loss of a loved one affects someone else as intensely as it affects us?,” Hall’s version of Turing writes in one of those letters. Just because he doesn’t show emotion the way he’s expected to doesn’t mean Turing doesn’t grieve Christopher’s death. And generations later, humans are frightened by the behavior of girls who have become attached to their babybots. But just because those children aren’t giving their affection to the people who feel they deserve it doesn’t mean they don’t have profound feelings.
Then, there’s Mary Bradford, a Puritan girl whose diary Hall recreates. Mary’s diary is wry and poignant, full of dispatches like one in which she tries to explain her family’s coming journey to the New World to her dog: “Meant to explain to him Godly importance of our adventure,” Hall has her write. “Ralph distracted by rabbits, but understood eventually, and held a somber countenance.” Ruth Dettman, whose computer science professor husband is suspicious of her attachment to a chatbot, is angry on Mary’s behalf centuries later. “I don’t particularly relish the idea of Mary getting included merely because she’s a woman,” Ruth reflects. “Getting read only for what she says about being female in colonial times, as if she could speak only to that topic.”
Chinn recognizes both Turing and Bradford for the perfection of their conversation. And it’s for that reason that his babybots are so appealing. But Chinn isn’t working in a world governed by perfect, compassionate robot leadership. The girls who love his creations represent a kind of transitional generation; the babybots pull them into a still-nascent future, leaving their parents and friends behind. Two of the voices in “Speak” comes from the transcripts of conversations between a girl named Gaby and a chatbot named Mary, who is an earlier iteration of the software in Chinn’s creations. Gaby’s distress and dissatisfaction are obvious; Mary feels like an inferior version of the companion Gaby lost, and Gaby explains that “My best [human] friend is the only one who understands me, but it’s not because we talk. It’s because we both lost our babybots.”
“Speak” leaves open the possibility that robots and humans will find a way not just to coexist, but also to better each other. “I have envisioned a time when people treat machines with respect,” Hall’s Turing writes, “a time when less emphasis is placed on the whims of the body, when we value each other not for the correctness of our physical shells but for the precision of our mental states.”