Last Friday, tucked between Christmas snoozing and New Year’s Eve revelry, Netflix debuted six new episodes of “Black Mirror,” the British-born anthology series that since 2011 has been provocatively exploring the dark side of our love affair with technology.
I’ve written before about why -- even as a mixed bag of premises -- “Black Mirror” is typically very smart and very scarily prescient about the ethical questions we should be thinking about in the digital era.
And last year, upon the show’s move to Netflix for its third season, I took a look at the video-game themed episode, “Playtest,” and how its tech matched up to real life.
For this new batch of season four shows, we find creator Charlie Brooker and his stable of writers and directors (including Jodie Foster on “Arkangel”) exploring AI-assisted dating, what happens when a stunted techie rules a virtual reality world, how much digitally assisted helicopter parenting is too much, and what the ethical implications might be when you can transfer someone’s consciousness to another body or object (a recurring idea through the series’ run).
Here’s a look at some of the technologies and how close we are to having them in the real world. I’ll try to avoid any major plot spoilers since “Black Mirror” is often experienced best completely cold. I’d suggest watching the episodes first before reading ahead.
What at first feels a lot like a straight-on parody of 1960s-era “Star Trek,” with “Friday Night Lights” and “Breaking Bad” star Jesse Plemmons in the William Shatner captain’s chair, becomes a story about white male entitlement, sexual harassment in the workplace and what rights we owe to digital copies made from ourselves.
In the episode, Plemmons plays Robert Daly, a brilliant but socially awkward programmer who writes “Sublime” code that has led to a company working on an online virtual reality game called “Infinity.” Unbeknownst to his co-workers, Daly is taking out his aggressions by creating virtual versions of them in a private version of the game he has skinned to look like “Space Fleet,” a “Star Trek”-like TV show of which he’s a fan.
While the VR parts of the episode are much more immersive that what’s available today, they’re not completely unrealistic. It’s perfectly reasonable that virtual reality will improve to give players more multiplayer experiences that also offer haptic feedback. (Expect to see a lot more about that in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “Ready Player One.”)
Where the tech in the episode starts to be less realistic is in the way it treats the ongoing “Black Mirror” theme of transferring human consciousness. Daly is able to re-create all the physical attributes, attitudes and even the memories of his co-workers and insert them into the game with a small machine that resembles a 3-D printer using only a saliva sample.
While there’s debate as to whether DNA can retain memories as they are passed on from generation to generation, it’s a huge narrative stretch to believe that all the DNA in our bodies now would carry not only all our current memories, but enable a VR sim to build avatars with complete self-awareness. And the trope that someone who dies or is trapped in a virtual simulation would also die or be rendered incapacited in real life is one that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, unless you’re talking about dying of exhaustion or neglect.
If you can get past those details, “USS Callister” is one of the lengthiest and most entertaining episodes of the season.
The fears of a parent and the promise of technology to help safeguard kids is the topic of this episode, in which a frazzled mom allows a company to implant “Arkangel” into her toddler daughter’s brain. The system lets the mother, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, track the daughter’s location, monitor any changes in her physical health, and, most disturbingly, see live and recorded footage of whatever her daughter sees. The tech also can automatically block disturbing content such as pornography or angrily barking dogs.
Some of this tech is already available now. The helicopter parenting industrial complex has location-tracking backpacks, apps meant to block the apps and websites kids access, and devices for tracking kids’ health (Bluetooth baby thermometer, anyone?).
Where the episode gets more farfetched is in the idea that a company would be granted access to implant such an invasive devices in the heads of children without much thought given to how it might be removed by a certain age (say, 13), or what might happen if the tech behind it were to be outlawed or rendered obsolete.
As someone who has talked to a lot of startups in tech, however, I can say with authority that many companies developing health technology aren’t thinking 10 or 20 years ahead. “We’ll figure it out when we get there,” is not an uncommon idea in emerging tech.
That said, there’s emerging tech to allow a person to see through another person’s view, typically through glasses or VR gear and we all remember when Google Glass was going to be the next big thing (and wasn’t).
As a lot of tech in “Black Mirror,” Arkangel looks easy, sleek and unobtrusive, when a real-life version of it today would probably be much bulkier and too unwieldly to for 24-hour/7-day-a-week use.
But, I have no doubt some parents would buy it.
This one’s largely a bleak crime procedural set in Iceland about a woman who tries desperately to cover up a long-buried incident from her past.
The tech angle here is a device used by an insurance investigator that can create video images from the memories of witnesses. In this one, a worker named Shazia is trying to close up a case involving a self-driving pizza truck that injured a pedestrian.
There have been experiments in this area to try to convert dreams or thoughts into digital video. More recently, there’s been research into using MRI technology as a way to visualize thoughts. But while there’s clever use in the episode of scents and sounds to try to sharpen someone’s memory, we’re still a long way off from an investigative device that can create HD-quality video out of a human’s (or guinea pig’s) remembrances in a way that would be admissible by a court or useful for an insurance claim.
A self-driving truck that cooks pizza and delivers it, though? We’d better have that in the next two or three years; it sounds like a goldmine.
“Hang the DJ”
Certainly the lightest-on-its-feet episode since last season’s beloved “San Junipero,” this love story is about a system that matches potential dating partners with a 99.8 percent success rate.
The biggest tech stretch in the episode is that our entire society would submit to the idea of letting a computer match up potential partners and take them through a series of relationships (some lasting years) until a perfect match is discovered.
It turns out, though, (big spoiler ahead...) that the entire exercise we’re so emotionally invested in is just a computer simulation run 1,000 times to determine the possible outcomes of pairing two people together.
That part of the episode has a ring of truth: Online dating sites are increasingly big-data driven and are largely trying to improve their algorithms to better match potential partners. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve gotten better about actually matching people together, just as improving the pool of available people; online daters are not bound to the system’s choices.
It’s a nice dream and a very good episode, but it’s not likely we’ll soon see any romance service that can accurately pair people for life with a 99.8 percent success rate anytime soon.
The most straightforward episode of the season might also be its scariest. In a post-apocalyptic black-and-white future (we’re never told what led us here), a woman and two men break into a warehouse and inadvertently unleash a killer dog-like robot.
While this episode appears to be the one set furthest in the future, it’s also, scarily, the most plausible of the season.
A company called Boston Dynamics has been working on robots that can run, climb and even simulate the getting-up-from-a-lie-down motions of dogs:
It’s not a far stretch to imagine that dog weaponized and full of sensors to track down wayward, unwanted humans, and Brooker says that YouTube videos like the one above were a direct inspiration for the episode.
The last episode of the season is a set of mini stories told by a carnival barker-like proprietor of a place called “Black Museum.” We learn that the man, Rolo Hayes, used to work in the medical tech industry and that many of the horrors housed in the museum are tied in with that work history (as well as lots of previous “Black Mirror” episodes).
In the first segment, we learn about a device called “Dawson’s Sympathetic Diagnoser,” something that allows a doctor to feel what his patients are feeling via wireless headgear and a brain implant. It sounds like a technological version of a real medical condition called mirror-touch synesthesia, which is tied to a very deep sense of empathy with others’ pain. And there’s been a movement to try to use virtual reality to teach empathy versus just using it as entertainment. And lastly, in gaming, the use of haptics to simulate pain (say, getting shot on a battlefield) is a very real thing.
But as the episode demonstrates, feeling the pain of everyone around you in a professional setting is highly problematic and perhaps even addictive.
In other segments of the episode, ideas explored include transferring the consciousness of someone, with or without their blessing, into another body or inanimate object. It’s an idea that former SXSW keynote and United Thereapeutics founder Martine Rothblatt has spoken about, the idea that you could live forever if your consciousness could be copied and transferred.
But what rights does a digital consciousness have if it’s, say, stuffed into a teddy bear that only has two phrases it can use to communicate? What about the consciousness of a dead convicted felon whose digital copy is executed every day in a perpetual cycle of torture as a kind of sideshow attraction (with ghoulish souveniers)?
Those are just two of the thorny questions that arise when discussing a digital kind of afterlife in which some of us could go on living long after our bodies have expired. The technology could be a long way off, decades perhaps, but the debate about what happens when it gets here has been going on in earnest for years.