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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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For every new piece of technology that gets developed, you can usually find people saying it will never be useful. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, for example, said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” It’s equally easy to find people raving about whichever new technology is at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the buzz around these newest developments and attempts to temper predictions. When technologies emerge, there are all kinds of uncertainties, from the actual capacity of the technology to its use cases in real life to the price tag.
Eventually the dust settles, and some technologies get widely adopted, to the extent that they can become “invisible”; people take them for granted. Others fall by the wayside as gimmicky fads or impractical ideas. Picking which horses to back is the difference between Silicon Valley millions and Betamax pub-quiz-question obscurity. For a while, it seemed that Google had—for once—backed the wrong horse.
Google Glass emerged from Google X, the ubiquitous tech giant’s much-hyped moonshot factory, where highly secretive researchers work on the sci-fi technologies of the future. Self-driving cars and artificial intelligence are the more mundane end for an organization that apparently once looked into jetpacks and teleportation.
The original smart glasses, Google began selling Google Glass in 2013 for $1,500 as prototypes for their acolytes, around 8,000 early adopters. Users could control the glasses with a touchpad, or, activated by tilting the head back, with voice commands. Audio relay—as with several wearable products—is via bone conduction, which transmits sound by vibrating the skull bones of the user. This was going to usher in the age of augmented reality, the next best thing to having a chip implanted directly into your brain.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. People had dreamed about augmented reality for a long time—an onboard, JARVIS-style computer giving you extra information and instant access to communications without even having to touch a button. After smartphone ubiquity, it looked like a natural step forward.
Instead, there was a backlash. People may be willing to give their data up to corporations, but they’re less pleased with the idea that someone might be filming them in public. The worst aspect of smartphones is trying to talk to people who are distractedly scrolling through their phones. There’s a famous analogy in Revolutionary Road about an old couple’s loveless marriage: the husband tunes out his wife’s conversation by turning his hearing aid down to zero. To many, Google Glass seemed to provide us with a whole new way to ignore each other in favor of our Twitter feeds.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of whether it’s because we’re not used to them, or if it’s a more permanent feature, people wearing AR tech often look very silly. Put all this together with a lack of early functionality, the high price (do you really feel comfortable wearing a $1,500 computer?), and a killer pun for the users—Glassholes—and the final recipe wasn’t great for Google.
Google Glass was quietly dropped from sale in 2015 with the ominous slogan posted on Google’s website “Thanks for exploring with us.” Reminding the Glass users that they had always been referred to as “explorers”—beta-testing a product, in many ways—it perhaps signaled less enthusiasm for wearables than the original, Google Glass skydive might have suggested.
In reality, Google went back to the drawing board. Not with the technology per se, although it has improved in the intervening years, but with the uses behind the technology.
Under what circumstances would you actually need a Google Glass? When would it genuinely be preferable to a smartphone that can do many of the same things and more? Beyond simply being a fashion item, which Google Glass decidedly was not, even the most tech-evangelical of us need a convincing reason to splash $1,500 on a wearable computer that’s less socially acceptable and less easy to use than the machine you’re probably reading this on right now.
Enter the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Piloted in factories during the years that Google Glass was dormant, and now roaring back to life and commercially available, the Google Glass relaunch got under way in earnest in July of 2017. The difference here was the specific audience: workers in factories who need hands-free computing because they need to use their hands at the same time.
In this niche application, wearable computers can become invaluable. A new employee can be trained with pre-programmed material that explains how to perform actions in real time, while instructions can be relayed straight into a worker’s eyeline without them needing to check a phone or switch to email.
Medical devices have long been a dream application for Google Glass. You can imagine a situation where people receive real-time information during surgery, or are augmented by artificial intelligence that provides additional diagnostic information or questions in response to a patient’s symptoms. The quest to develop a healthcare AI, which can provide recommendations in response to natural language queries, is on. The famously untidy doctor’s handwriting—and the associated death toll—could be avoided if the glasses could take dictation straight into a patient’s medical records. All of this is far more useful than allowing people to check Facebook hands-free while they’re riding the subway.
Google’s “Lens” application indicates another use for Google Glass that hadn’t quite matured when the original was launched: the Lens processes images and provides information about them. You can look at text and have it translated in real time, or look at a building or sign and receive additional information. Image processing, either through neural networks hooked up to a cloud database or some other means, is the frontier that enables driverless cars and similar technology to exist. Hook this up to a voice-activated assistant relaying information to the user, and you have your killer application: real-time annotation of the world around you. It’s this functionality that just wasn’t ready yet when Google launched Glass.
Amazon’s recent announcement that they want to integrate Alexa into a range of smart glasses indicates that the tech giants aren’t ready to give up on wearables yet. Perhaps, in time, people will become used to voice activation and interaction with their machines, at which point smart glasses with bone conduction will genuinely be more convenient than a smartphone.
But in many ways, the real lesson from the initial failure—and promising second life—of Google Glass is a simple question that developers of any smart technology, from the Internet of Things through to wearable computers, must answer. “What can this do that my smartphone can’t?” Find your answer, as the Enterprise Edition did, as Lens might, and you find your product.
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Many people get frustrated with technology when it malfunctions or is counterintuitive. The last thing people might expect is for that same technology to pick up on their emotions and engage with them differently as a result.
All of that is now changing. Computers are increasingly able to figure out what we’re feeling—and it’s big business.
A recent report predicts that the global affective computing market will grow from $12.2 billion in 2016 to $53.98 billion by 2021. The report by research and consultancy firm MarketsandMarkets observed that enabling technologies have already been adopted in a wide range of industries and noted a rising demand for facial feature extraction software.
Affective computing is also referred to as emotion AI or artificial emotional intelligence. Although many people are still unfamiliar with the category, researchers in academia have already discovered a multitude of uses for it.
At the University of Tokyo, Professor Toshihiko Yamasaki decided to develop a machine learning system that evaluates the quality of TED Talk videos. Of course, a TED Talk is only considered to be good if it resonates with a human audience. On the surface, this would seem too qualitatively abstract for computer analysis. But Yamasaki wanted his system to watch videos of presentations and predict user impressions. Could a machine learning system accurately evaluate the emotional persuasiveness of a speaker?
Yamasaki and his colleagues came up with a method that analyzed correlations and “multimodal features including linguistic as well as acoustic features” in a dataset of 1,646 TED Talk videos. The experiment was successful. The method obtained “a statistically significant macro-average accuracy of 93.3 percent, outperforming several competitive baseline methods.”
A machine was able to predict whether or not a person would emotionally connect with other people. In their report, the authors noted that these findings could be used for recommendation purposes and also as feedback to the presenters, in order to improve the quality of their public presentation. However, the usefulness of affective computing goes far beyond the way people present content. It may also transform the way they learn it.
Researchers from North Carolina State University explored the connection between students’ affective states and their ability to learn. Their software was able to accurately predict the effectiveness of online tutoring sessions by analyzing the facial expressions of participating students. The software tracked fine-grained facial movements such as eyebrow raising, eyelid tightening, and mouth dimpling to determine engagement, frustration, and learning. The authors concluded that “analysis of facial expressions has great potential for educational data mining.”
This type of technology is increasingly being used within the private sector. Affectiva is a Boston-based company that makes emotion recognition software. When asked to comment on this emerging technology, Gabi Zijderveld, chief marketing officer at Affectiva, explained in an interview for this article, “Our software measures facial expressions of emotion. So basically all you need is our software running and then access to a camera so you can basically record a face and analyze it. We can do that in real time or we can do this by looking at a video and then analyzing data and sending it back to folks.”
The technology has particular relevance for the advertising industry.
Zijderveld said, “We have products that allow you to measure how consumers or viewers respond to digital content…you could have a number of people looking at an ad, you measure their emotional response so you aggregate the data and it gives you insight into how well your content is performing. And then you can adapt and adjust accordingly.”
Zijderveld explained that this is the first market where the company got traction. However, they have since packaged up their core technology in software development kits or SDKs. This allows other companies to integrate emotion detection into whatever they are building.
By licensing its technology to others, Affectiva is now rapidly expanding into a wide variety of markets, including gaming, education, robotics, and healthcare. The core technology is also used in human resources for the purposes of video recruitment. The software analyzes the emotional responses of interviewees, and that data is factored into hiring decisions.
Richard Yonck is founder and president of Intelligent Future Consulting and the author of a book about our relationship with technology. “One area I discuss in Heart of the Machine is the idea of an emotional economy that will arise as an ecosystem of emotionally aware businesses, systems, and services are developed. This will rapidly expand into a multi-billion-dollar industry, leading to an infrastructure that will be both emotionally responsive and potentially exploitive at personal, commercial, and political levels,” said Yonck, in an interview for this article.
According to Yonck, these emotionally-aware systems will “better anticipate needs, improve efficiency, and reduce stress and misunderstandings.”
Affectiva is uniquely positioned to profit from this “emotional economy.” The company has already created the world’s largest emotion database. “We’ve analyzed a little bit over 4.7 million faces in 75 countries,” said Zijderveld. “This is data first and foremost, it’s data gathered with consent. So everyone has opted in to have their faces analyzed.”
The vastness of that database is essential for deep learning approaches. The software would be inaccurate if the data was inadequate. According to Zijderveld, “If you don’t have massive amounts of data of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, then your algorithms are going to be pretty biased.”
This massive database has already revealed cultural insights into how people express emotion. Zijderveld explained, “Obviously everyone knows that women are more expressive than men. But our data confirms that, but not only that, it can also show that women smile longer. They tend to smile more often. There’s also regional differences.”
Yonck believes that affective computing will inspire unimaginable forms of innovation and that change will happen at a fast pace.
He explained, “As businesses, software, systems, and services develop, they’ll support and make possible all sorts of other emotionally aware technologies that couldn’t previously exist. This leads to a spiral of increasingly sophisticated products, just as happened in the early days of computing.”
Those who are curious about affective technology will soon be able to interact with it.
Hubble Connected unveiled the Hubble Hugo at multiple trade shows this year. Hugo is billed as “the world’s first smart camera,” with emotion AI video analytics powered by Affectiva. The product can identify individuals, figure out how they’re feeling, receive voice commands, video monitor your home, and act as a photographer and videographer of events. Media can then be transmitted to the cloud. The company’s website describes Hugo as “a fun pal to have in the house.”
Although he sees the potential for improved efficiencies and expanding markets, Richard Yonck cautions that AI technology is not without its pitfalls.
“It’s critical that we understand we are headed into very unknown territory as we develop these systems, creating problems unlike any we’ve faced before,” said Yonck. “We should put our focus on ensuring AI develops in a way that represents our human values and ideals.”
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