S.B. Divya on her science fiction novel ‘Machinehood’

S.B. Divya’s new science fiction thriller, Machinehood, is ready in a not-too-distant future when folks have entry to tabletop biotech labs that churn out all the things from cures for brand new illnesses to performance-enhancing medicine. However they discover that taking such medicine is all however obligatory as they compete for paying gig work in an economic system the place increasingly more jobs could be executed by synthetic intelligence.

Earlier than she was a broadcast writer, Divya was an engineer with a background in computational neuroscience and information science, in addition to computing {hardware} and software program. She talked to Quick Firm about how her work has formed her writing, the not-quite-dystopian world she envisions in Machinehood, and why she’s nonetheless optimistic concerning the future.

The interview has been edited for size and readability.

How did your tech profession inform your writing?

I really began school intending to enter astrophysics, and after a few years I acquired sideswiped by a very fascinating new division at Caltech on the time, which was computational neuroscience. That was type of an fascinating hybrid of physics, electrical engineering, and neurobiology. I discovered it actually fascinating. I felt just like the mind was as mysterious because the far reaches of our universe, which was shocking and intriguing. I ended up working in medical gadgets, and I used to be nonetheless capable of put lots of my machine-learning information to make use of there within the functions of sample recognition.

Then I went on to getting a grasp’s diploma in sign processing and high-speed communications, which led me to a few fascinating jobs. I had a stint at a startup doing digital music fingerprinting, which was actually enjoyable. We had been attempting to take an MP3 file and match it as much as determine what tune it was, which is clearly an utility that’s in use at present. On the time, we meant to make use of it as a plug-in for peer-to-peer companies like Napster and Scour, that are completely gone and have been changed by paid music.

Then, I went on to working in chip design, so the high-speed semiconductor business. I used to be working on VDSL, after which Ethernet, after which I cycled again to very particularly machine studying with the rise of knowledge science over the previous few years. I switched from being extra within the {hardware} aspect to purely again into the software program area.

And so I type of had this hybrid background of mixing biology and expertise. My most up-to-date job was utilizing the Apple Watch to trace folks’s sleep, and for that I used to be doing lots of information crunching but in addition neural networks and sample recognition. There are lots of medical doctors and likewise molecular biologists and biochemists who’re actually enthusiastic concerning the thought of having the ability to tailor remedies for a person’s physiology and biochemistry.

Proper now, remedy is commonly overkill, too broad. The best going ahead is to have the ability to perceive a person’s physique biochemistry and the way they’re going to react to a drug or a selected remedy after which tailor that to their particular chemistry. I believe we’re going to have the instruments to have the ability to do this over the following hundred years. So these are a few of the issues which have undoubtedly knowledgeable my science fiction going again to the start.

My first e-book was a brief novel or novella referred to as Runtime, which concerned a cybernetically enhanced journey racer. For that I used to be drawing on a few of the work I had seen executed at Caltech that continues at present, which is embedding chips within the human physique that interface together with your nerves, together with your muscle mass, and together with your mind. Proper now they’re getting used therapeutically, however as with many issues, that ultimately turns to client merchandise, so I had enjoyable with that.

Extra lately for Machinehood, it’s simply loaded with enjoyable biotechnology and personalised medication and likewise problems that may come up from these sorts of issues.


So far as the problems in Machinehood, you actually dive into the regulatory failure round sure medicine and gadgets. Do you assume that we’ll have the suitable regulatory equipment to make this stuff protected and efficient earlier than they’re deployed in the true world?

I believe we’re dealing with a very fascinating problem in relation to regulating all types of expertise, together with biotechnology, and that’s that we have now regulatory apparatuses at present however they’re massive and bureaucratic they usually have a tough time maintaining with the tempo of science and technological growth, which is accelerating.

There are at all times folks in dire want of latest therapies who’ve to attend.”

Even in Machinehood, I posit that there’s this type of cycle. There was a interval of deregulation and acceleration of expertise after which all of the damaging penalties of that, which led to elevated regulation, after which one other cycle once more. I really feel like we type of undergo that.

We’ve seen that very instantly with the pandemic and the vaccine, the place we have now had to make use of a loophole of emergency use authorization fairly than going by the standard FDA channels in America, as a result of the standard channels take years and years, and we are able to’t afford to attend years and years.

It type of begs the query, if we’re contemplating this vaccine protected and efficient, which it appears to be, then does it really matter as emergency use or ought to this be the method going ahead? Can we at all times do that? There are at all times folks in dire want of latest therapies who’ve to attend or who get an emergency or compassionate use particular exemption. Whereas there are a lot of, many good causes for this, together with the truth that we don’t need to hurt folks, the flip aspect is that the longer we take on the regulatory aspect, the extra persons are struggling whereas ready for remedy.

It’s a really powerful steadiness to strike, and I believe it’s going to get touchier as we go ahead except we modify the system to have the ability to reply quicker to what’s occurring out there.

What sort of adjustments do you envision would make that doable?

As with all massive forms, the larger a factor is, the slower it tends to maneuver. We’ll have to determine a option to break it up. So the query is, how can we do this whereas nonetheless sustaining the necessity for security and efficacy? That’s at all times the objective: The drug or the biotechnology must be efficient, and it must be protected.

I believe very similar to with computer systems and one thing like AI, the place we’ve seen the type of leapfrogging of {hardware} and software program the place one catches as much as one other after which the opposite one accelerates—I believe we’re going to see that over the following a long time with biotechnology as properly. On this case, the leapfrogging is between the science and regulatory our bodies, so we’ll catch as much as what we’re capable of do after which maybe we hit a disaster level just like the pandemic, which makes us reevaluate our methods and rethink the timetables.

So in all probability for some time we will maintain tempo, after which organic sciences will leapfrog once more. For instance, in Machinehood, I posit that we find yourself having tabletop genetics, taking a software like CRISPR that enables gene enhancing. Like what occurred with digital expertise, the place we began with computer systems that fill total rooms and now we have now computer systems that slot in our pockets: What if the identical factor occurs with biology and we have now genetic engineering the place you may produce one thing like a vaccine in your house workplace?

That might be a recreation changer. Equally, as we get higher at simulating organic methods, we’ll be capable of democratize the power to check our personal our bodies to customise remedies, after which that’s going create jobs, so extra folks will be capable of enter this area and work in that individual subject and that will even change the dynamic, proper?

Within the novel, you may have a notion of individuals having to make use of this tabletop biotechnology and AI simply to compete within the workforce. Do you assume that’s the place we’re headed?

I believe we’re there at present. Think about attempting to conduct this interview if you happen to didn’t have a pc and an web connection, or attempting to do enterprise with out a smartphone. Making an attempt to do faculty [remotely], there are lots of children who’re struggling proper now with out a broadband connection or in a family the place the one gadget out there is the father or mother’s cellphone.

So I believe in lots of methods, we’ve already arrived, and once more, Machinehood is an extrapolation and acceleration in that very same path. However I believe we’re already there to the purpose the place if you happen to don’t have entry to the expertise, you’re not going to have the ability to compete within the workforce.

I don’t know of anybody who isn’t going to on the very least pay for a cellphone at this level. And most of the people would think about paying for a smartphone important, and that’s not an affordable invoice. And if you happen to’re utilizing it as a part of work, it turns into an important software, however you’re paying for it out of your wages.

We’ve gone from a primarily agrarian and farm-based labor power to an information-based one. And you’ve got tractors and sprinklers and drones that spray pesticides and fertilizers. You don’t have as many people working the fields aside from these few jobs like strawberry choosing the place we have now struggled to develop the robots to do what human beings can do a lot simpler and cheaper.

From that standpoint, I believe a few of the jobs and the majority of the workforce when it comes to what they’re doing at present, that’s undoubtedly going to alter 100 years from now. Individuals are not essentially going to be sitting in entrance of their computer systems working on spreadsheets and conducting conferences.

Not so dystopian

On the finish of the day, are you optimistic concerning the future? That we’ll get issues proper and switch round a few of the issues that we’re dealing with?

I’m typically fairly optimistic concerning the future. I believe there are at all times oscillations like I stated, two steps ahead, one step again, and [some people] will react negatively to it they usually’ll need to pull society again from these adjustments. However general, wanting on the lengthy arm of historical past, we have now at all times marched, on common, on that lengthy arc within the path of higher equality, of progress, of higher high quality of life, longer life.

I believe it’s fascinating that in each Runtime and Machinehood’s early opinions, folks name these tales or worlds that I’ve invented dystopias. As a result of I don’t consider them as dystopic views of the long run. The way in which I see it, there are at all times going to be issues. We’re simply going to be dealing with totally different issues.

Human beings are gonna human.”

The longer term’s going to deliver a special set of challenges, however hopefully lots of the issues we’re dealing with at present, we’re going to begin to face and overcome. Any time that we make progress, something new that reveals up goes to introduce new considerations, similar to the web has launched the digital divide. In some methods it’s a carry ahead of the identical downside of the haves and the have-nots.

That type of factor, that elementary human nature, I believe goes to be very laborious to make go away. Simply because we’re who we’re, till or except we begin deeply tinkering with our personal biology and our hormones and our mind buildings. At which level you might argue we’re not human anymore.

Till we get there, human beings are gonna human. We’re gonna battle about all of the outdated issues. There’s nonetheless going to be greed, there’s nonetheless going to be lust. However I believe general, we are going to hopefully be more healthy, we could have a wider attain for schooling, for meals, for all of the issues that we actually want, and for equality—for gender equality, for able-bodied and disabled folks, for folks of colour, for folks all through the globe.

General, I’m optimistic that progress will nonetheless march ahead, whether or not folks prefer it or not. We’ll hit some bumps alongside the way in which however we’ll recover from them.