With the recent release of it’s new and platform-redefining, experimental choose-your-own-adventure television episode "Bandersnatch", it seems like the perfect time to take a moment and talk about the incredible show Black Mirror.
For those of you who may not be familiar, Black Mirror is a British anthology science fiction television series. It examines modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. Episodes are standalone, usually set in an alternative present or the near future, and often subjected to a dark and satirical tone.
Basically it’s The Twilight Zone for millennials.
It’s also a really well conceived and written show. And luckily for those of us who don’t live in the UK, it’s also available on Netflix, which is what allowed the dream of a CYOA episode of television to become a reality.
In general, though, Netflix’s dystopian series paints a pretty dismal portrait of our future, leading many to believe the show is anti-technology. Executive producers Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones have said that’s not the case though. Rather, Black Mirror is a satire, ribbing our tech addiction by showing deeply exaggerated stories of a future that may come to pass if we don’t become critical of our relationship with the devices that run our lives.
The recent seasons of the show have presented a raft of believable technologies, from parenting surveillance systems, to cloud consciousness, and even killer robot dogs. But how likely are any of these technologies to actually be a part of OUR near-future?
Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular gadgets of the series to see where the technology they depict falls in the spectrum from totally possible, to total fantasy.
Parental Monitoring Implants
In the episode “Arkangel” viewers were treated to the vision of the ultimate end of helicopter parenting when a worried single mother resolves to have her daughter injected with an implant (described more like microscopic computers in her bloodstream) which, when connected to an app on a tablet, allows the mother to literally see through her daughter’s eyes, check her vitals, track her location, and even censor things that she deems inappropriate for her daughter to experience.
Predictably in the show, the use (or misuse) of the implant’s abilities to manipulate the daughter inevitably ends tragically, but we’ll forgo the spoilers for now because that’s not what we’re interested in. The question here is: how far fetched is the technology?
Well, this is an interesting one. Because ultimately we are a long way off from computers that can be injected into a living person. There are some researchers working on microrobotics which have single uses towards treating a disease or tracking/regulating vitals, but the idea of a system as complex and multi-use as the one depicted in Black mirror would require technology that was indistinguishable from magic. And if we had tech that advanced, we as a society probably would be well past worrying about the day to day health of our kids.
That being said though, every FUNCTION of this fantasy technology does actually exist. We already have wearables that can track vital signs, and apps that parents can install on their kids’ phones to track them and monitor where they are and what they’re seeing on their phones. If they were super weird, they theoretically could strap a livestream camera onto their kid’s head and see everything they were seeing in realtime, but that would be more than a bit conspicuous. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is even working on computers that can be worn as contact lenses, and could be used to censor reality just like we see in the episode.
Ultimately, while the technology in this episode is a fantasy, it’s effects may in fact be very realistic.
Simulated Dating Worlds
One of the more mind-bending episodes of Black Mirror, “Hang the DJ”, depicts a world surrounded by walls where dating is whetted down to a stringently enforced system with each person having set amounts of time with a potential mate that vary in length based on how compatible the system deems you to be. But when two people fall in love and decide to try to escape the system (SPOILER ALERT) they realize that they are just one of millions of simulations running to see if the real-life versions of themselves would make a good match.
Turns out they do.
Obviously online dating has changed the world to some degree. But could it ever really get this existentially dreadful? Well… Maybe.
If you have heard of simulation theory, then you know that there is a chance that we are all living in a simulation ourselves. The idea being that once sufficiently advanced simulations become a possibility, you would run as many of them as you could. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine some infinitely powerful computer in the future being able to suss out the most essential things that make us us and apply that to another person’s characteristics. Throw in some Matrix-like VR simulation into the mix, and it sounds like we’d be able to recreate this episode.
Love, as irrational as it may feel at times, is just biology and chemistry, and all of the natural world is really just applied mathematics. That’s what computers were always meant to do. Whether or not the power consumption of running such complex simulations for a dating app would be economically feasible even for an advanced future society though—that’s a whole ‘nother question.
This idea actually comes up in a couple of different episodes, in fact it’s something of a running theme for Black Mirror. We see it in “USS Callister”, “Black Museum”, “San Junipero”, “White Christmas”, and “Be Right Back”. It seems a lot of us (or at least a lot of the show’s writers) think that the transcendence of human consciousness from the physical to the digital world will be a key hurdle that near future humanity will have to meet.
But is this really the case, or has Black Mirror been—GASP—lying to us all along!?
To put it simply, the problem is a lot more complicated than Black Mirror would have you believe. First off, we’re still not fully sure what consciousness IS, let alone how to copy or recreate it in a digital format. It’s possible that a normal computer built on binary switches, logic gates, and metallic hardware isn’t even capable of storing consciousness.
But if we look past that for a moment, and imagine a world where that problem at least was solved, we’d still run into problems. For one, since our connectomes are constantly changing, it’s possible that any snapshot of this you might take to upload would be a mere fraction of the person you really are.
And in at least one episode, duplicate consciousnesses are created by uploading merely the DNA of the people in question. And even though they may be somewhat rough approximations of the originals, if humanity were at a point where we can instantaneously analyze someone’s DNA and copy it well enough to mimic their consciousness, we’d probably have achieved the technological singularity already and be well beyond the mundane cares of the world Black Mirror often makes us question.
There are plenty of companies out there right now working on building programs that can reliably approximate us and take our place in virtual chatrooms, customer service calls, or keeping up our social media. And maybe someday we will even be able to take an actual person’s essence, their soul if you will, and upload it to a digital cloud. But by the time we get their, we will almost certainly be facing an entirely different set of problems then the ones we can imaging today.
So ultimately, while this tech may not necessarily be fantasy, our only way of conceiving of it certainly is.
And of Course – Killer Robot Dogs
One of the more memorable technologies depicted in Black Mirror appears in the episode entitled “Metalhead.” There isn’t a whole lot to explain: At some point in the near future, in a place that’s never explicitly stated (but might be the English countryside?), humans are few and far between, perpetually on the run from dog-sized autonomous robots who viciously murder any humans they see on sight.
The most interesting thing about these killer doggies is that it appears as though they can hack and control other pieces of technology. And in a post-apocalyptic world filled with so much discarded tech, the dogs don’t have much trouble tracking and killing the humans still left.
But again, the real question is how realistic this technology actually is. Turns out- it basically already exists.
Boston Dynamics has been making robot canines for a couple of years now. They’re capable of following orders, navigating around obstacles, searching out specific items, and crucially- for our purposes- integrating with wireless technology to help itself get around. Just like the dogs from the show!
Luckily for us though, these are good boy robot dogs… for now. They’re made to carry heavy loads over rough terrain and aid in repetitive tasks in work environments. And that’s where most robot apocalypse theories really break down. We tend to worry that as soon as we develop sufficiently advanced AI it will turn against us. But the simple fact that we worry about that means that it’s much less likely to ever happen. We’re aware of the risk, and so AI researchers take steps to guard against the outcome.
Plus, any AI heavily reliant on hardware would be much smarter to keep humans alive and just make us subservient to them. So yeah, maybe in the real world the robot pets will eventually become the masters…