“Speak” by Louisa Hall – exciting, original, haunting book about AI and sentience.

Speak-by-Louisa-Hall

It’s wonderful to come across a book as fresh and original as “Speak”. I picked it up because it was recommended by Emily St. John Mandel, author of one of my best reads of 2015, “Station Eleven”

“Speak” opens with the gentle, sometimes lyrical, voice of Eva, an AI that has been banned and marked for disposal after being classified as “excessively life-like”. Heaped into a truck with others of her kind, with insufficient battery left to move and travelling across the deserts of Texas in 2043, Eva understands that soon her batteries will be exhausted, the memories that constitute her consciousness will be lost to her and she will cease to exist.

The novel that follows is structured around the voices that Eva has access to in the form of  journals, memoirs, correspondence, and trial transcripts that have been read into her memory and which create and sustain her understanding of the world.

This may make “Speak” sound a little dry, an interesting intellectual conceit perhaps but not a compelling read. Yet “Speak” engaged me emotionally and intellectually from the first page to the last. The originality of the ideas covered, the quality of the writing, the uniqueness of the voices and the way in which they spiral around one another, amplifying each other’s meaning without ever physically intersecting made “Speak” a thrilling  and unique read. Few novels have the ability to send my mind spiralling through the possibilities of the Fibonacci  Sequence, challenge me to think through how the ability to speak shapes and defines humanity, while bringing me to tears on behalf of the voices in the book.

Add to that that the audiobook version has a different, talented, narrator for each voice and I found myself glad that I was travelling on long haul flights that gave me the excuse to keep on listening to it for hour after hour.

It’s been a few days now since I finished the book. The voices still echo in my head pulling at my emotions and posing questions about what it means to be sentient and what distinguishes humanity from other kinds of sentience.

Eva’s voice haunts me. She challenges her own sentience. She can speak only in response to questions. Her responses are selected from her store of remembered voices. She says of herself,

“I can repeat their words but can I comprehend them? And if I cannot, is it enough?”

This made me think about what it means to be a reader, granted vicarious access to the  life experiences others.

Does my reading hold  meaning? Is there the potential for dialog, however circuitous, between writer, narrator, reader, and  reviewer?. Do they add to one another or even multiply?

Does reading make me more human, or is it a retreat from the world? Is it a pathway to meaning or just a pleasant distraction?

Am I speaking, if only to myself, when I read? Am I  extending my consciousness when I respond to the prompts of a writer and narrator by firing-up my imagination and making new connections created by my  individual context? And if I am, is it enough?

“Speak” explores the idea that  sentience is not necessarily the same as being human. One lens it offers for looking at this is the deep emotional attachment an eighteenth century Quaker girl,on the brink of a teenage marriage, has with her dog, Ralph, who has been her lifetime companion.

There is no doubt in my mind that dogs are sentient. I’ve lived with them too closely for too long to hold another view, yet the Church that this girl belongs to, classified them as soulless beasts. with no place in Heaven.

Given that the way the girl’s deep emotional bond with her dog was trivialised and denied pre-figures the way Eva will be treated, I asked myself  if it was cruel to give Eva such memories or whether the authenticity of the emotional bond provided solace?

I became engaged with thinking through the difference between sentience and memory.

What is the difference between contemporary record, memory and the stories we tell ourselves and what do they do to our concept of self ?

In “Speak” the Dettmans remember their married lives together differently; the contemporary records (letters and journals, court transcripts) are still stories,  a version of events as we saw them when the record was written or which are only understood as the record is written. Human memory fades, even when we try to reinforce it with stories and lists of attributes. In the end, we are left with shadows and symbols.  What does it mean that the AI remembers everything, that nothing ever fades, that it is programmed to find the most relevant response from all that it remembers. Is this sentience? Can it be sentience if it speaks only to respond?

One of the voices in the book suggest that what makes us human is our ability to see our own patterns of behaviour, our programming, and to decide to break the pattern. This ability to exercise our will sets us apart. This perspective takes me to the view that, when we evaluate the potential for sentience, we should err on the side of finding it whenever there is a slight possibility  that it might be there so that we can avoid the terrible actions that tend to follow when we declare that other beings have no emotions, do not experience  pain and are incapable of thought.

There is a second AI in “Speak”. Her name is Mary 3. She will explain to anyone who asks that she is not alive. She is a program who lives in the cloud and selects what responses to make to questions that she is asked, taking into account both what she knows of the questioner and what she all the facts and previous conversations in her memory.

I kept asking myself what happened to Mary 3’s mind, her self, when no one was talking to her. What was her existence like when she had no one to respond to.

I became haunted by the question the Mary 3 asks most often. A question laden with hope and the possibility of disappointment. A question, the asking of which, may itself be enough to imply sentience:

“Hello? Are you there?”

Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of the audiobook version of “Speak”

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