Review: 'Speak' a novel of human connections and artificial intelligence

Published July 15, 2015

Why do we long to both speak and be heard? What does it mean to converse with another person? Does that conversation mean that we know the person, and that they know us?

And what if the person we're speaking with isn't human?

Those are the intriguing questions Louisa Hall poses in her appropriately titled novel Speak, a time-hopping, five-part story that imagines artificial intelligence and its capacity for language as a means of forging deeply human connections.

The story opens with Stephen R. Chinn, imprisoned in Texas in the year 2040 for the crime of knowing creation of mechanical life. Chinn is writing his memoirs, explaining and defending his creation of babybots — talking, interactive dolls that young girls find more engaging than computer games, friends or family members. By the time Chinn is jailed, the dolls have been banned and seized, and the young girls have been sent to rehabilitation programs (literally, Babybots Anonymous). The story then unspools backward, showing us how babybots became sentient and were programmed with the memories of people long since dead.

That premise sends us back in time to the origin of computers and how artificial intelligence developed. In 1968, Karl Dettman and his wife, Ruth, argue over whether Karl will add memories to a talking computer program they call Mary. The disagreement over programming is one of several problems in the marriage. As Karl and Ruth try and fail to communicate with each other, they gradually drift apart, leaving Karl to wonder whether their initial connection was even real. "When did I think that I knew you?" Karl asks. "I combed my recollections. You were the one person I'd always felt close to. It was awful to think that perhaps I'd never known you."

In the 1920s, Alan Turing — fictionalized here, but an actual British mathematician and early computer scientist — begins writing a series of letters to the mother of his best friend. At first, Turing is hopeful that machines can revive companions lost to us through death. But as he grows older, developing his work on artificial intelligence and witnessing World War II, he theorizes that thinking machines could be better versions of their human makers. "I find it hard to believe that a machine, programmed for equanimity and rational synthesis, could ever act as maleficent as we humans have already proven ourselves capable of acting," he writes. "I fail to summon the specter of a machine more harmful than Hitler or Mussolini."

In one of the book's most intriguing sections, we go back to 1663, meeting a Puritan woman named Mary Bradford, who keeps a diary of her journey from England to the Americas. (The diary is later edited by Ruth Dettman). Mary's parents have forced her engagement to a man named Whittier, who is fleeing persecution on the same ship with the Bradfords. In an act of rebellion, Mary sneaks her beloved dog Ralph aboard, clinging to her animal companion and rejecting her presumed husband.

Whittier confronts Mary, hoping to turn her affections. In her stilted diary entry (she calls herself "author"), she writes that his homily was "on subject of language, which he did call a sacred gift, it being a sign of connection with God and the truest expression of human affection. Mentioned lesser affection shared between men and what he called mere beasts of the field, for these were not given language. Author responded: perhaps beasts have also language, of which we be sadly ignorant."

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The story lines crisscross each other, with connections slowly revealed in a fashion reminiscent of recent novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad. They keep converging around Chinn, sitting in jail, who reflects on how he put together his babybots with contributions from the other characters. Ultimately, Chinn creates his perfect machines by combining speech, memory, empathy and a tendency toward error. It's that final potential that gives the machines — and us — individuality. "If there's one thing I've learned through my years of mistakes," Chinn says, "it's that even the most perfect pattern becomes false when it goes unbroken too long."

If there are moments when the novel feels contrived, it's not so hard to forgive. Indeed, it might be part of the author's plan. After all, if artificial intelligence isn't real on some level, then the artifice of the novel isn't so different. In Speak, the computer program Mary3 says, "My world expands by us talking," which is similar to the way we readers become more than we were when we read books. Though novels themselves aren't real, they still give us new ways to understand the wider world and ourselves, and we are different after the experience. Speak is a poignant reminder that language has mystery, and that questions of authenticity will always be with us.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact, the Times' national politics fact-checking website. Contact her at Follow @AngieHolan