The title of S. B. Divya’s debut novel, Machinehood (Gallery/Saga Press, 2021), refers to an underground band of rebels (or terrorists, depending on your view) who threaten to unplug the world from the tech essential to modern life unless all intelligences—human and man-made—are given equal rights.
The book opens with Welga, the story’s hero, ordering black coffee from a bot in Chennai, India; the bot puts milk in the coffee while insisting that the drink is still “black.” A human vendor across the street fills Welga’s order properly, without milk, and then summarizes her experiences with the two vendors in a tidy lesson: “Bots work faster, but human mind is smarter.”
The vendor’s words foreshadow the fault line that runs through the book. On the one hand, humans rely on bots to run their homes and economy, on the other, humans compete with bots, constantly afraid of falling physically and mentally behind.
“Once upon a time, we harnessed animals to help us,” Divya says. “Now we've turned to machines and, as those machines get increasingly intelligent, the competition in certain sectors is going to also ramp up. There's an existential fear right now for a lot of people that AIs are going to replace them and then they're not going to have work. So in part, this novel is exploring that particular concern, but not so much as a dystopia, more as a realistic vision … of what the future could look like when we have to coexist with these very, very capable machines.”
Set 75 years in the future, the AIs in Welga’s world have not yet achieved sentience (hence they’re referred to as “weak” AIs.) Still, they are stronger and process information faster than humans. To keep up, humans use mechanized exoskeletons to make themselves stronger and pills to speed their thinking and reflexes, greying the distinction between humans and bots.
“How much of a difference is there really between human beings, cyborgs and AI-based robots? And should we be making as much distinction between those categories as we do today, especially going forward as all of these things get more sophisticated? I was really interested in looking at the blurring of those lines and interrogating at what point we decide to give machines rights, especially when they provide us with so much free labor.”
S.B. Divya was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards for her novella Runtime. She is co-editor of Escape Pod, with Mur Lafferty.