Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Alan Turing, Marital Angst, Dutiful Daughters and Living Dolls... a review of 'Speak' by Louisa Hall

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I have a deep interest in the ethics of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and am constantly on the lookout for fiction that addresses this topic. I was therefore very excited to discover a new novel by Louisa Hall that tackles the issue of what we do with artificially intelligent beings once we have created them.

Speak is a novel with a difference. It took me a while to get into, but after a few chapters I began to get the idea. It comprises a number of interwoven stories, the connections between them slowly being revealed. Mary is a young seventeenth century girl, newly married to a husband she doesn't much like, reluctantly accompanying him and her parents on a pilgrim voyage to America. On the way, Mary's beloved dog is washed overboard and she is overwhelmed by grief.

We hear the confessional thoughts of a scientist in a Texas prison in 2040. He has been convicted of creating intelligent dolls that have left their young owners over-dependent on them and incapable of forming true human relationships. The dolls have been removed to 'die' and their owners are left devastated and damaged.

Do you see the connection? Well, no, it's not obvious early on, except perhaps the common thread of loss. We are introduced to a couple in 1968 whose marriage is failing. We revisit the wife twenty years later and discover that she has been feeding the story of Mary the voyager, as well as her own story, into an AI program designed by her husband.

We also read the (fictional) letters of AI pioneer Alan Turing, written to Mrs Morcom, the mother of his dear friend Chris, who died when he and Alan were at school. Turing shares his thoughts on creating an artificial brain, while revealing his own complex emotions and the vicissitudes of his life as a gay man in the mid twentieth century.

The various strands slowly become woven together, in a way that left my mind stimulated both by the ideas and by the writing. This is science fiction of a special kind, perhaps appealing to readers of Margaret Atwood's more recent work. The writing is good, though a little flowery at times for my taste. The author appears to have done her research, pretty much, though the speed of development of some of the AI projects left me breathless. (And postcodes were not introduced to the UK until the early 1970s. Just a minor quibble...)

Chiefly, though, I will remember Speak for the challenge it poses. If we succeed in creating artificial intelligences that can truly think and feel (and how, ultimately, will we know - that's always the question), then how will we treat them? With kindness, respect and dignity, or not? Should AI be stopped (could it be stopped?) before we face this problem and many related ones (such as how they might treat us, their human creators)? These are not questions for the distant future; they are issues we need to start thinking about now, and it's good to see near-future sci-fi beginning to tackle them. (See also my own novel, Lena's Nest, to be released very soon, which tackles the same issue in a rather different way.)

If you like something a bit different, try Speak. Give it time and it may speak to you. It will certainly entertain, and perhaps challenge some of your cherished ideas about what it means to be human.
Title: Speak
Author: Louisa Hall
Publisher: Ecco Press
Publication Date: 7th July 2015
Price (UK): Hardback edition £13.05; Kindle edition £9.49
Happy reading!

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