I congratulate my colleague Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, a researcher in our big data team, for being named a finalist for the prestigious Nebula Awards. The nomination, in the novelette category, is for Messenger, co-authored with R.R. Virdi and published as part of Volume IV of The Expanding Universe anthology. The winners will be announced in May in Los Angeles, and I along with all my colleagues at LIRNEasia wish him good luck!
For those who don’t know, the Nebula along with the Hugo (I am sure he will be nominated for a Hugo too one of these days), are the two main literary awards in the world for science fiction. The only other Sri Lankan to have ever been nominated was the late illustrious adopted son of Sri Lanka, Arthur C. Clarke, who won it thrice. You can find the complete list of nominees for the 2019 Nebula Awards HERE.
On a personal note, I should add that that I am very proud of Yudhanjaya’s achievements and his path to achieving them.
He first came to our attention back in 2014 as a Young Scholar for the annual CPRSouth conference that we organize that is intended to build policy intellectuals and ground them on the basics of communication policy research. Not long after, he applied to my team. I did not hire him then. He went on to work at one of Sri Lanka’s main technology companies WSO2 (whose help was particularly critical at the initial stages of our big data work and I should thank their CEO Sanjiva and VP of Research Srinath for that). Yudhanjaya applied again to work at LIRNEasia a few years later and I was taken back by the growth that I had seen in less than a year and half. He still had no degree, but that was not a concern. I think WSO2 and LIRNEasia are some of the few places in Sri Lanka where a degree is not a pre-requirement. In that, he is just the second person on my team who came to us without a degree. The first was Dedunu Dhananjaya (one of my first hires), who put together our low-cost Hadoop cluster (that others have replicated) and that is still our main workhorse 5 years into its setup (Dedunu now works for Transferwise in Estonia, a USD 1.5 billion peer-2-peer money transfer company).
At LIRNEasia, Yudhanjaya has worked on a variety of projects from articulating how cross-border social media linkages help illuminate regional linkages and help understand regional blocs (e.g. SAARC, BIMSTEC, ASEAN), trying to understand the limits of Natural Language Processing (NLP) for resource poor languages in many developing countries, which limit the use of machine-assisted detection of hate speech, to also now understanding how countries of the Asia-Pacific could leverage and/or adapt to megatrends (inter alia demographic shifts, climate change, AI, automation, etc.). All the while, he has supplemented his work by continuous learning through MOOCs (he has now become one of the go-to-people in Sri Lanka on how to best leverage MOOCs for one’s learning). From inception, the big data team has depended quite a bit on MOOCs to continuously upgrade our skills.
But to Yudha, sci-fi is where is heart is, but that is far from being irrelevant to our work. Infact the term ‘cyberspace’ around which a lot of work revolves, was first coined by the author William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. If one wants to understand one potential pathway to learn how people grapple with issues of privacy, read Speaker for the Dead (the second book in the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card) where the protagonist employs different personas to speak to different audiences. One should write to Yudha to ask him for the text of his alternate TedxColombo speech (and which I would have preferred more) outlining why everyone should read sci-fi. In the end he talked on another subject, “How Friendships Define Us – And Why They’re Dangerous,” building on his own experiences and the work he was then doing at LIRNEasia. And similarly those interested in how dataficiation and algorithmic decision-making could shape our world, should read Yudhanjaya’s first book Numbercaste (initially self-published online but now published by HarperCollins). In some ways I wish his book had come out two years before, when it would have preceded the current and (sometimes partly misinformed) concerns around China’s Social Credit System. But the book is still prescient and I would highly recommend it (read Rohan Smarajiva’s review of the book to understand why the book is highly relevant to current algorthimic zeitgeist).
Yudhanjya is an important part of LIRNEasia (even when he causes me to lose my temper from time to time) and the multi-disciplinary big data team (where everyone including myself is a ‘character’ of some form or the other). But all credit for Yudhanjaya’s literary achievements belong to him. It has been borne of curiosity, a voracious appetite for knowledge, and a stubborn analytical mind (not just on the topics he writes about, but also the market and business of publishing). I like to think that that his ongoing work at LIRNEasia has been symbiotic – our work feeding his story telling, and his futurist vision challenging and expanding our thinking. And given his very fast growth trajectory at work, here is me personally hoping that he makes me irrelevant very soon.