An expert on voice recognition and speech technologies responds to Ysabelle Cheung’s “Galatea.”
When Joseph Faber invented the Euphonia, a mid-19th century analog voice synthesizer, people weren’t impressed. They found Faber’s invention to be a strange device with little to no purpose. (It eventually found a home in P.T. Barnum’s circus). In an attempt to create a machine that could mimic human speech, Faber was physically tethered to his invention, manipulating its bellows, gears, and hardware to produce human-like utterances—from short speeches to ghostly renditions of “God Save the Queen”—with a flat affect. One version of the machine was designed with a feminine face attached to its bellows, hair in ringlets and fair, smooth-looking skin. The idea of a woman serving as a manifestation of a man’s technological feat is nothing new. From PAT in the 1999 Disney TV movie Smart House to the synths in the Channel 4 series Humans (2015-2018), conversational feminine A.I. are embedded in many of our visions of the future. While Faber’s machine might not have been successful, it serves as a reminder of humanity’s fascination with creating something in our likeness and making technology do something greater than we might have originally imagined.
In the 21st century, artificial intelligence avatars such as BINA48 and Sophia answer questions and interact with a quizzical and curious public. These mediations often perpetuate limited constructs of femininity as servile and pleasing to the eyes and ears. Like Faber’s Euphonia, they are figures with softer, delicate facial features designed to act in service of, or to entertain, a human audience or individual. Although the mimicry might be crude—nowhere near the sophistication of the humanoids in the HBO adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Westworld—these machines-as-women remind us of the hidden scripts underlying technological advancements throughout history, from Siri into the deep past.
In Greek mythology, Galatea is a story about a sculptor who falls in love with his creation: an ivory statue of a feminine figure. The artist’s subconscious desires are brought to life in the beautiful statue, and the goddess Aphrodite grants his wish, bringing his creation to life. Drawing on this myth, Ysabelle Cheung’s short story of the same name weaves together themes of mimicry, cloning, and voice with subtlety and precision. Her story provokes us to contemplate what women might desire from feminine A.I. figures originally programmed to please, entice, and serve a male-coded user. In Cheung’s “Galatea,” the female characters, human and A.I. alike, model irreducible nuance in their utterances and speech, despite being programmed (digitally) by their creators and through (analog) social forces, gendered expectations, and norms.
The story is told in the second-person, filtering the reader’s experience through the perspective of the female narrator who encounters Galatea, an A.I.-powered bot, and her male owner. Over the course of an evening, the narrator begins to pick up on echoes between herself and this programmed feminine figure. The way that the narrator interprets and frames Galatea fluctuates: We initially imagine that Galatea functions more or less as a robotic sex worker, then as a domestic appliance, a sort of “smart home” hub—and later, as an unsettling recreation of the owner’s musical-prodigy ex-wife.
The story begins with the narrator inside the apartment of Galatea’s owner, a man who she’s been on several dates with. The narrator points out the finer details of the home: a knockoff Noguchi table, a pair of convincing flameless candles, and the tidy symmetry of the decor. The setting calls to mind sleek, modern urban homes filled with marble and hardwood, all sharp points and edges, asserting humans’ ability to exert complete control over the material circumstances of our lives, no matter the messy vagaries of geography, wildlife, and weather. Specifying our needs and wants through what we own somehow might bring about satisfaction, relief, or solace.
After discovering and interacting with Galatea, the narrator’s identity begins to blur; Galatea is dressed like the narrator, with a similar hairstyle, a particular instantiation of Chinese femininity. Like the owner’s ex-wife, who looks similar and works in the narrator’s office, Galatea plays the piano—the male owner assumes that our narrator also plays, which she both admits as true and resents as a stereotype. This moment provides a glimpse into how a feminine A.I. might have been programmed and coded to align with local gender norms. Whether Galatea is playing from an extensive catalog of classical piano pieces or singing songs by the Taiwanese musician Teresa Teng, her creators had a specific likeness in mind that they knew would be appealing for a particular set of customers: a stature, demeanor, and voice that one could trust and rely on. The collision and blurring among the narrator, the A.I., and the ex-wife reveals these feminine figures as subtle permutations of one another, all of them programmed and optimized to meet the needs of a partner, an owner, a (male) companion.
Unlike The Stepford Wives, a 1972 novel (and film, in 1975 and 2004) that depicts a dystopian future for women subjugated and replaced by pleasing bots in the suburban U.S., “Galatea” invites us to ponder whether consciousness can be transmuted from human to machine, and whether it might arise from the limited programming of “companion bots.” Can we envision a Galatea that gains an imagination, a mind of her own? Does the liberating turn at the end of Cheung’s story signal a transcendence of—or transgression against—the cultural expectations of Asian women that haunt the story’s triad of feminine characters?
For the A.I. figure in “Galatea,” the inside of the home, a place of domesticity and sanctuary, is not a refuge but rather a place of continual domestic labor—from piano performances and pleasant small talk to managing her owner’s networked devices while reclining silently on standby. We’re already experiencing the programming of smart technologies to emit the voice of our deceased loved ones, echoing Cheung’s story, in which the owner’s A.I. companion bears such uncanny similarity to his ex-wife. With a gentle touch or the intonation of a wake word, our feminine-coded Siris and Alexas and Cortanas snap to attention—a quasi-phalanx of helpful, cheerful A.I. women, ever-ready for our commands.
As a researcher focused on voice recognition and assistive technologies, I keep returning to the role that speech plays in Cheung’s story. The deftness of the dialogue makes our titular A.I. seem irresistibly human, and our presumably human narrator somewhat machinic. The voices of the characters are the vehicle by which the organic and the artificial begin to mesh and meld. Galatea may move and speak with a gracefulness verging on human, but her responses to the narrator’s queries about how she spends her time alone and her monologue on the pianist Clara Schumann are what really beguile the narrator and the reader into thinking that she has achieved a human (or superhuman?) degree of sentience.
Through multiple readings of the story, I keep remembering a moment in Louisa Hall’s 2015 novel Speak. In one vignette, a man, Karl Dettman, writes a letter to his wife about her conversations with an A.I. system, MARY. He writes, “Ever since you discovered my talking computer, you save your conversation for her. Have you considered how this might affect me? Coming home to such ringing silence? It’s like coming home to packed bags. I can feel you leaving me.” The husband is desperate to understand what MARY has given his wife that he hasn’t. In Cheung’s story, Galatea is similarly appealing, in an ambiguous way, to the female narrator. Cheung leaves us to interpret for ourselves both a feminine-coded A.I. that seems to have surpassed her programming and a narrator whose bond with Galatea might be based on growing fondness, or upon the recognition of an essential likeness. Those twinned questions—whether the A.I. can exceed her programmed limits, and why the narrator is so transfixed by her—hover over an ending that serves as a metaphor for how we might rid ourselves of our attachments, fixations, and gendered constructs.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.