S.B. Divya’s new science fiction thriller, Machinehood, is set in a not-too-distant future when people have access to tabletop biotech labs that churn out everything from cures for new diseases to performance-enhancing drugs. But they find that taking such drugs is all but mandatory as they compete for paying gig work in an economy where more and more jobs can be done by artificial intelligence.
Before she was a published author, Divya was an engineer with a background in computational neuroscience and data science, as well as computing hardware and software. She talked to Fast Company about how her work has shaped her writing, the not-quite-dystopian world she envisions in Machinehood, and why she’s still optimistic about the future.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your tech career inform your writing?
I actually started college intending to go into astrophysics, and after a couple of years I got sideswiped by a really interesting new department at Caltech at the time, which was computational neuroscience. That was kind of an interesting hybrid of physics, electrical engineering, and neurobiology. I found it really fascinating. I felt like the brain was as mysterious as the far reaches of our universe, which was surprising and intriguing. I ended up working in medical devices, and I was still able to put a lot of my machine-learning knowledge to use there in the applications of pattern recognition.
Then I went on to getting a master’s degree in signal processing and high-speed communications, which led me to a couple of interesting jobs. I had a stint at a startup doing digital music fingerprinting, which was really fun. We were trying to take an MP3 file and match it up to identify what song it was, which is obviously an application that is in use today. At the time, we intended to use it as a plug-in for peer-to-peer services like Napster and Scour, which are totally gone and have been replaced by paid music.
Then, I went on to working in chip design, so the high-speed semiconductor industry. I was working on VDSL, and then Ethernet, and then I cycled back to very specifically machine learning with the rise of data science over the past few years. I switched from being more in the hardware side to purely back into the software domain.
And so I kind of had this hybrid background of blending biology and technology. My most recent job was using the Apple Watch to track people’s sleep, and for that I was doing a lot of data crunching but also neural networks and pattern recognition. There are a lot of doctors and also molecular biologists and biochemists who are really enthusiastic about the idea of being able to tailor treatments for an individual’s physiology and biochemistry.
Right now, treatment is often overkill, too broad. The ideal going forward is to be able to understand an individual’s body biochemistry and how they’re going to react to a drug or a particular therapy and then tailor that to their specific chemistry. I think we’re going to have the tools to be able to do that over the next hundred years. So these are some of the things that have definitely informed my science fiction going back to the beginning.
My first book was a short novel or novella called Runtime, which involved a cybernetically enhanced adventure racer. For that I was drawing on some of the work I had seen done at Caltech that continues today, which is embedding chips in the human body that interface with your nerves, with your muscles, and with your brain. Right now they’re being used therapeutically, but as with many things, that eventually turns to consumer products, so I had fun with that.
More recently for Machinehood, it’s just loaded with fun biotechnology and personalized medicine and also complications that can arise from these kinds of things.
As far as the complications in Machinehood, you really dive into the regulatory failure around certain drugs and devices. Do you think that we’ll have the right regulatory apparatus to make these things safe and effective before they’re deployed in the real world?
I think we’re facing a really interesting challenge when it comes to regulating all forms of technology, including biotechnology, and that is that we have regulatory apparatuses today but they are large and bureaucratic and they have a hard time keeping up with the pace of science and technological development, which is accelerating.
There are always people in dire need of new therapies who have to wait.”
We’ve seen that very immediately with the pandemic and the vaccine, where we have had to use a loophole of emergency use authorization rather than going through the traditional FDA channels in America, because the traditional channels take years and years, and we can’t afford to wait years and years.
It kind of begs the question, if we’re considering this vaccine safe and effective, which it seems to be, then does it really count as emergency use or should this be the process going forward? Can we always do this? There are always people in dire need of new therapies who have to wait or who get an emergency or compassionate use special exemption. While there are many, many good reasons for this, including the fact that we don’t want to harm people, the flip side is that the longer we take on the regulatory side, the more people are suffering while waiting for treatment.
It’s a very tough balance to strike, and I think it’s going to get touchier as we go forward unless we change the system to be able to respond faster to what’s happening in the market.
What kind of changes do you envision would make that possible?
As with any large bureaucracy, the bigger a thing is, the slower it tends to move. We’ll have to figure out a way to break it up. So the question is, how can we do that while still maintaining the need for safety and efficacy? That’s always the goal: The drug or the biotechnology needs to be effective, and it needs to be safe.
I think much like with computers and something like AI, where we’ve seen the sort of leapfrogging of hardware and software where one catches up to another and then the other one accelerates—I think we’re going to see that over the next decades with biotechnology as well. In this case, the leapfrogging is between the science and regulatory bodies, so we’ll catch up to what we’re able to do and then perhaps we hit a crisis point like the pandemic, which makes us reevaluate our systems and reconsider the timetables.
So probably for a while we will be able to keep pace, and then biological sciences will leapfrog again. For example, in Machinehood, I posit that we end up having tabletop genetics, taking a tool like CRISPR that allows gene editing. Like what happened with digital technology, where we started with computers that fill entire rooms and now we have computers that fit in our pockets: What if the same thing happens with biology and we have genetic engineering where you can produce something like a vaccine in your home office?
That would be a game changer. Similarly, as we get better at simulating biological systems, we’ll be able to democratize the ability to study our own bodies to customize treatments, and then that’s going create jobs, so more people will be able to enter this space and work in that particular field and that will also change the dynamic, right?
In the novel, you have a notion of people having to use this tabletop biotechnology and AI just to compete in the workforce. Do you think that’s where we’re headed?
I think we’re there today. Imagine trying to conduct this interview if you didn’t have a computer and an internet connection, or trying to do business without a smartphone. Trying to do school [remotely], there are a lot of kids who are struggling right now without a broadband connection or in a household where the only device available is the parent’s phone.
So I think in a lot of ways, we’ve already arrived, and again, Machinehood is an extrapolation and acceleration in that same direction. But I think we’re already there to the point where if you don’t have access to the technology, you’re not going to be able to compete in the workforce.
I don’t know of anyone who isn’t going to at the very least pay for a cellphone at this point. And most people would consider paying for a smartphone essential, and that’s not a cheap bill. And if you’re using it as part of work, it becomes an essential tool, but you’re paying for it out of your wages.
We’ve gone from a primarily agrarian and farm-based labor force to an information-based one. And you have tractors and sprinklers and drones that spray pesticides and fertilizers. You don’t have as many humans working the fields except for those few jobs like strawberry picking where we have struggled to develop the robots to do what human beings can do much easier and cheaper.
From that standpoint, I think some of the jobs and the bulk of the workforce in terms of what they’re doing today, that is definitely going to change 100 years from now. People are not necessarily going to be sitting in front of their computers working on spreadsheets and conducting meetings.
Not so dystopian
At the end of the day, are you optimistic about the future? That we’ll get things right and turn around some of the problems that we’re facing?
I’m generally pretty optimistic about the future. I think there are always oscillations like I said, two steps forward, one step back, and [some people] will react negatively to it and they’ll want to pull society back from those changes. But overall, looking at the long arm of history, we have always marched, on average, on that long arc in the direction of greater equality, of progress, of better quality of life, longer life.
I think it’s interesting that in both Runtime and Machinehood’s early reviews, people call those stories or worlds that I’ve invented dystopias. Because I don’t think of them as dystopic views of the future. The way I see it, there are always going to be problems. We’re just going to be facing different problems.
The future’s going to bring a different set of challenges, but hopefully a lot of the problems we’re facing today, we’re going to start to face and overcome. Any time that we make progress, anything new that shows up is going to introduce new concerns, just like the internet has introduced the digital divide. In some ways it’s a carry forward of the same problem of the haves and the have-nots.
That kind of thing, that fundamental human nature, I think is going to be very hard to make go away. Just because we are who we are, until or unless we start deeply tinkering with our own biology and our hormones and our brain structures. At which point you could argue we’re not human anymore.
Until we get there, human beings are gonna human. We’re gonna fight about all the old things. There’s still going to be greed, there’s still going to be lust. But I think overall, we will hopefully be healthier, we will have a wider reach for education, for food, for all the things that we really need, and for equality—for gender equality, for able-bodied and disabled people, for people of color, for people throughout the globe.
Overall, I’m optimistic that progress will still march forward, whether people like it or not. We’ll hit some bumps along the way but we’ll get over them.