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Fiction Science Club

‘Machinehood’ casts humanhood in a new light

S.B. Divya has been thinking about the technologies of the future for so long, it’s hard for her to imagine living in the present.

Her debut novel, “Machinehood,” stars a super-soldier with body enhancements who packs it in to become a bodyguard for celebrities — but becomes enmeshed in an action-packed race to save the world.

Technologies ranging from human enhancement to do-it-yourself biohacking play supporting roles in Divya’s tale of 2095. And oh, if only some of those technologies were available in 2021…

“There are definitely days where I came out of the writing, and looked around and realized that I was back in the real world — and was occasionally sad about it, because there are really useful things in ‘Machinehood’ that I wish we had today,” Divya says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast.

The thing she misses the most is the super-smart AI personal assistant that keeps track of everything and can speak directly in a person’s head. Divya also misses the smart pills that could help you focus better or move faster, and the smart materials that could let you reconfigure your house or your furniture and appliances on a daily basis. “I would like to have some of these things tomorrow if possible,” she said.

But “Machinehood” is about more than gadgetry: Divya delves deeply into AI’s potential effects on human-machine interactions. If we hand over virtually all manual tasks to robots, should the robots be given some of the rights accorded to human laborers? Should they be allowed to rest? To retire? To quit? As machines become more intelligent and self-directed, such questions are likely to sound less silly.

“Especially in Western culture, I feel like we see objects as things for us to use, right? There’s this idea of human exceptionalism, where even animals, anything that’s not human is inherently less valuable than a human being,” she said.

S.B Divya
S.B. Divya (Photo by Sargeant Creative)

Divya was fascinated to find that other cultures take a different view.

“I was reading up on traditional Shintoism from Japan, and how everything is imbued with value, even a rock, and should therefore be treated with a certain amount of respect,” she said. “And thinking about if that kind of attitude became more pervasive, especially if we applied it to something like AI. How does that change the way we interact with our world, and what decisions we make in terms of what’s right and what’s wrong?”

The plot machinery in “Machinehood” draws upon Divya’s study of computational neuroscience at Caltech and electrical engineering at the University of California at San Diego, as well as her working experience as a signal processing engineer and data scientist.

“I’ve done a lot with computer hardware, with medical devices, with digital data, and especially with machine learning and pattern recognition systems, so writing a book about AI was a natural extension of that,” she said.

One of the things she gets right about AI is the distinction between weak or AI (the specialized kind of intelligence that makes computers virtually unbeatable when it comes to chess, go or “Jeopardy!”) and strong AI (human-level intelligence that includes the ability to deal with novel situations).

In “Machinehood,” the AI agents of 2095 haven’t yet attained strong AI — which Divya prefers to call sentient AI — but they come close enough to keep the humans guessing.

Fictional plots that rely on strong AI tend to focus on human-vs.-machine conflict, a la “Terminator” or “Westworld.” Divya, however, thinks the movie “Her” does a better job of reflecting the future trajectory for AI agents. In fact, she notes that in China, current-day AI agents are already becoming objects of affection, like the personal assistant in “Her” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the movie).

“There’s feminized AI software that they’ve developed that is being used and deployed in China to provide companionship,” Divya noted, “and there’s a whole lot of men in China who are very much in love with this AI woman.” (The chatbot, named Xiaoice, was created by Microsoft researchers and spun off as a separate venture last year.)

"Machinehood" dust jacket
“Machinehood” is S.B. Divya’s debut novel. (Saga Press / Simon & Schuster)

In the long run, it may be hard to tell when weak AI turns into sentient AI — and that’s one of the themes explored in “Machinehood.”

“At what point do you decide that if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck?” Divya said. “Even if it wasn’t born from a duck.”

Some big thinkers say that since humans can’t beat AI, we’ll have to figure out how to join with AI. That’s the motivation behind Neuralink, a venture that aims to revolutionize brain-machine interfaces with backing from Elon Musk.

Divya is doubtful about Neuralink’s business model for the brain.

“If you talk to any doctor, surgeries are pretty much the last thing you want to do,” she said. “So my conception was that in order to have a commercially viable product like Neuralink that allows brain-computer interfacing, you really need something that can be ideally ingested.”

That’s why “Machinehood” relies heavily on smart pills — encapsulated nanodevices that can be swallowed, digested and then deployed into the bloodstream to boost stamina, cognition or healing.

Would Divya really take such pills if they were available?

“Yes, I 100% would. I have a body that fails me on a fairly regular basis,” she said with a chuckle. “That was one of the inspirations for what happens to my main character.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

When my Fiction Science co-host, Dominica Phetteplace, brought up the subject of reading lists, S.B. Divya (which is actually a pen name used by Divya Srinivasan Breed) was ready.

Her recommendations for science fiction include “Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz. “I see ‘Machinehood’ in a lot of ways as a prequel to her novel,” Divya said. “Her novel is set about 50 years after mine and takes AI and robots just a few steps further in their progression.”

Other fiction picks:

On the nonfiction side, Divya said she enjoyed “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari, which assesses the effects that technologies such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence could have on politics, economics, religion and other facets of society. “I thought that was a really interesting exploration of some of these topics,” Divya said.

Homo Deus book cover
“Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari. (Harper Perennial)

That qualifies “Homo Deus,” which was published in 2017, to win this month’s nod as a selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has been turning a spotlight on books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to be available at your local library or secondhand-book store.

Divya also recommends anything written by Ray Kurzweil: “I like his ideas, and it carries into the themes of this book, of integrating humans and machines.”

Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science gets a shout-out for its emphasis on unraveling the brain connectome. (Check out “The Feeling of Life Itself” for Allen Institute neuroscientist Christof Koch’s views on the nature of consciousness.)

For the latest news on science and technology, Divya keeps up with the Science X newsletter and MIT Technology Review. “I also gather up some of my favorite interesting stuff on my blog,” she said.

There’s also Divya’s novella, “Runtime,” a cyber-racing tale that’s being considered for the Hollywood treatment; plus “Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse,” a collection of her short stories.

And as if all that weren’t enough, Divya is the co-editor of Escape Pod, a podcast-cum-blog that highlights fresh crops of science fiction. That experience has opened her eyes to a whole new kind of alien world.

“I didn’t have a good understanding of what it felt like on the other side of the desk until I became an editor myself,” she said. “It gave me a little more confidence in terms of putting my work out there — and knowing that if an editor rejects it, it really isn’t personal. Like, they always tell you that. But I was able to internalize that better.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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