Machina Season 1

Machina from Serial Box Cover

Author(s): Curtis C. Chen, Fran Wilde, Malka Older, Martha Wells,
Genre(s): Artifical Intelligence, Space Colonization,
Publisher: Serial Box
Date Pubished: January 29, 2020
250 Pages

Machina Season 1 Book Review

Machina is a near-future space race competition featuring two tech start-ups. The competition’s goal is to select a company to build an AI-powered robot to set up a habitat on Mars. This competition is especially crucial as Earth is facing environmental catastrophes and the future of the human race lies in colonizing Mars.

As expected from a competition story, most of the drama in Machina stems from the relationship between the two start-ups. What makes this story interesting is the unique relationship these companies have. The older, more established start-up is DevLok. DevLok has been developing an AI robot for the competition for years. Owned by an overbearing man named Trey Lowell, the company is a reflection of his personality. The other start-up is Watchover. It’s newer than DevLok for an excellent reason. It’s founders, Stephanie Bask and Lakshmi Singh, used to work at DevLok. They left after not being able to deal with Trey’s personality. Rounding out the initial cast of characters is Smits Perez, who left DevLok. Instead of joining Watchover, Smits opens a bar that becomes a neutral zone for the competing companies’ employees to interact.

DevLok’s approach to AI development reflects its owner’s overbearing personality. They insist on control over everything. Micromanaging the code, their AI becomes closer to a series of If-Then statements rather than intelligence. The DevLok is also very conventionally built. But when Whatchover looks like they are taking the lead, Trey takes chances that could turn disastrous.

Whatchover, on the other hand, takes a different approach. They train their AI using newer neural network strategies. This approach gives the Whatchover AI more independence, allowing it to accomplish astonishing tasks autonomously. This independence comes at a price; the choices their AI makes often leaves the developers confused. Will this come back to haunt them?

Interpersonal problems exacerbate the inherent conflict inherent in a high stakes competition. There is the obvious tension between Trey and his former employees turned rivals Steph and Lakshmi. Cameron, an employee of Watchover, becomes romantically involved with a DevLok employee. (As a side note, Cameron is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. No one bats an eye at this.) A reporter, Hiro Watanabe, has been assigned to DevLok and granted access to sensitive information, but he is secretly rooting for Watchover. Smits’s bar is a neutral zone where employees from both companies intermingle, but tensions often run high. Machina’s writers do not shy away from interpersonal conflict and make it a strong point in the series.

Machina is an excellent piece of near-future science fiction. Its development of artificial intelligence is utterly believable. The complex interplay between characters overshadows any questionable science. The serial format, common to all Serial Box productions, is conducive to listening. It divides the story into easily consumable sizes while providing the narrative of a full-length novel. The narrator adds to the story, but it is a perfectly enjoyable read as well.

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