When Black Mirror Comes Alive
Looking at Black Mirror Technology That Already Exists
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!