When Black Mir­ror Comes Alive

Look­ing at Black Mir­ror Tech­nol­ogy That Al­ready Ex­ists

NOVO - - When Black Mirror Comes Alive - By Stephanie Greenall

When it comes to tech­nol­ogy, I wouldn’t say that I’m scared of it, in fact, it’s the com­plete op­po­site. My house is over­run with Alexa, I spend more time in vir­tual re­al­ity than the av­er­age bear, and I have draw­ers full of wear­able tech de­vices. I have al­ways been in­ter­ested in how in­no­va­tion has im­pacted and shaped com­mu­ni­ties and cul­tures, but when it comes to the darker side of tech it can get a lit­tle bit fright­en­ing. If you have ever watched BBC’s Black Mir­ror you will un­der­stand what I am talk­ing about. The show ex­plores the unan­tic­i­pated con­se­quences of new tech­nolo­gies in mod­ern so­ci­ety. While the se­ries is fic­tional, the tech­nol­ogy might not be too far off.

Check out Black Mir­ror tech­nol­ogy that al­ready ex­ists!

The Next Com­ing of Cujo?

Ear­lier this year, the in­ter­net did a col­lec­tive shud­der as our news feeds were in­vaded with Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics’ new ro­bot. The four-legged “dog” was fea­tured in a video open­ing the door for an­other au­to­mated hound and left the world ask­ing, “What are these ro­bots for?” While the se­cre­tive ro­bot­ics com­pany -- which was started with fund­ing from the US mil­i­tary -- has typ­i­cally kept silent about whether they are de­vel­op­ing a high-tech helper or a mur­der­ous droid, they have re­cently an­nounced their first com­mer­cial prod­uct. Af­fec­tion­ately called the SpotMini, the ro­bot will be sold to busi­nesses as a cam­era-equipped se­cu­rity guard next year. Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics con­tin­ues to re­lease glimpses into the fu­ture of ro­bot­ics with videos fea­tur­ing an­i­mal-like ma­chines that can nav­i­gate ob­sta­cles like doors and ta­bles. These ma­chines can also jump, gal­lop and prowl like our furry friends. The com­pany’s founder and CEO Marc Raib­ert has played down the idea of weaponiz­ing ro­bots, but he hasn’t de­nied fu­ture mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions.

While the Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics videos may have made you feel a lit­tle un­easy about our har­mo­nious fu­ture with ro­bots, Black Mir­ror’s episode “Me­tal­head” from sea­son four would have pushed that queasy feel­ing just a lit­tle bit fur­ther. The episode -- which was filmed en­tirely in black and white -- fea­tures a lone sur­vivor who is try­ing to flee ro­botic dogs in an apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape. In­spired by Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics’ BigDog -- the larger ver­sion of the SpotMini -- the ro­bot vi­ciously pur­sues the sur­vivor and leaves the viewer with a less than fuzzy feel­ing about a fu­ture with these prospec­tive pooches. Whether you’re ex­cited to see if it will be Alexa-en­abled or if you think this is a com­put­er­ized Cujo, the ro­bots are

com­ing. Let’s just hope they stay on our side!

Flight of a Thou­sand Bum­ble­bees

Be­fore Black Mir­ror sent shiv­ers down our spines with com­put­er­ized ca­nines, the show in­tro­duced a smaller and equally ter­ri­fy­ing killing ma­chine, bees. Con­tin­u­ing on the theme of biorobotics, which com­bines de­sign prin­ci­ples from na­ture with ro­bots, the “bees” were de­vel­oped to fill the void left by the ex­tinc­tion of the real thing. The clos­ing episode of sea­son three, ‘Hated in the Na­tion’, ex­plores what hap­pens when these happy lit­tle hon­ey­bees get hacked. The pint­sized pol­li­na­tors be­come deadly drones and go on a mur­der­ous ram­page.

The episode also tack­les the is­sues of cy­ber­bul­ly­ing and ac­count­abil­ity. Fea­tur­ing a vi­ral Twit­ter game dubbed, “Game of Con­se­quences” users choose the bees’ next vic­tim by tweet­ing with the hash­tag #DeathTo. Those who fall prey to the killer bees are peo­ple who have mis­be­haved on­line -- like post­ing im­ages of uri­nat­ing on war memo­ri­als or in­sult­ing a young child.

While we haven’t quite man­aged to take ro­botic hits out through so­cial me­dia yet, there has been some move­ment in pol­li­na­tion through au­to­ma­tion. Re­searchers at the Wyss In­sti­tute at Har­vard Univer­sity have been de­vel­op­ing au­tonomously fly­ing mi­cro­robots, or RoboBees. Mea­sur­ing about half the size of a pa­per­clip and weigh­ing less than one-tenth of a gram, these RoboBees use “ar­ti­fi­cial mus­cles” to fly and are de­signed to per­form myr­iad roles in­clud­ing crop pol­li­na­tion, search and res­cue mis­sions, sur­veil­lance, as well as high-res­o­lu­tion weather, cli­mate, and en­vi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing. Will these au­to­mated in­sects solve the pol­li­na­tion prob­lem? The univer­sity isn’t the only or­ga­ni­za­tion who thinks so. It turns out Wal­mart filed a patent in 2017 for drones that are de­signed to pol­li­nate crops by car­ry­ing pollen from one plant to the next. While bees have re­port­edly been dy­ing off since the 1990s, the plight of these in­sects con­tin­ues, and if we are un­able to res­ur­rect their pop­u­la­tion, we will have to rely on Har­vard, or pos­si­bly Wal­mart, to save us.

Ready for Vir­tual Im­mor­tal­ity?

In­spired by se­ries cre­ator Char­lie Brooker’s ex­pe­ri­ence of feel­ing oddly dis­re­spect­ful about delet­ing a friend’s con­tact in­for­ma­tion af­ter they had passed away, “Be Right Back” ex­plores grief, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and vir­tual im­mor­tal­ity. The episode be­gins with a young woman whose boyfriend dies in a car ac­ci­dent. As she mourns her loss, she is in­tro­duced to a ser­vice that al­lows her to com­mu­ni­cate with her re­cently passed part­ner us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI). Upload­ing her boyfriend’s past on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion and so­cial me­dia ac­counts, a new vir­tual per­sona echo­ing his man­ner­isms is cre­ated. The young woman con­tin­ues to share videos and phone calls to help the AI learn and ex­pand its in­ter­ac­tions. She con­stantly spends her time talk­ing and in­ter­act­ing with “him,” re­sult­ing in the ques­tion, “Does this help with grief or make it worse?”

While this episode seems a lit­tle far­fetched, there are al­ready com­pa­nies out there that have been work­ing on this ser­vice -- scary, I know! A cou­ple of years ago I came across ETER9, de­signed by Por­tuguese de­vel­oper Hen­rique Jorge. The so­cial net­work­ing plat­form -- which is still in beta -- cre­ates a vir­tual be­ing called a Coun­ter­part. By gath­er­ing posts and com­ments you pub­lish, the Coun­ter­part can be­gin to em­u­late your per­son­al­ity. The more you share, the more your vir­tual dou­ble will learn. By ab­sorb­ing your be­hav­iour through your pro­file, the Coun­ter­part will be able to post for you long af­ter you die. Like Face­book -- and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms -- the ETER9 net­work fea­tures a news­feed and a pro­file, which is re­ferred to as a “cor­tex.” What gives me the willies is that you could end up meet­ing your Coun­ter­part be­fore you die!

ETER9 wasn’t the first of its kind. In 2010, a com­pany called Vir­tual Eter­nity un­veiled a web­site which would al­low you to train your dou­ble with per­son­al­ity tests, voice notes, and pho­tos from your so­cial me­dia ac­counts. The site didn’t last long and was shut down two years later. Vir­tual im­mor­tal­ity con­tin­ues to be ex­plored by AI de­vel­op­ers and brings up a num­ber of ques­tions re­lat­ing to the ethics of grief and mor­tal­ity. Would you want to live for­ever as an AI?

With an ex­pected re­lease date of De­cem­ber 2018, I am ex­cited to see what tech­nol­ogy and top­ics the fifth sea­son of Black Mir­ror will tackle.

Screen­shot from the “White Christ­mas” episode of BBC’s Black Mir­ror.

Bos­ton Dy­nam­ics’s SpotMini ro­bot is ca­pa­ble of open­ing doors - wow!

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