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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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Technological progress has radically transformed our concept of privacy. How we share information and display our identities has changed as we’ve migrated to the digital world.
As the Guardian states, “We now carry with us everywhere devices that give us access to all the world’s information, but they can also offer almost all the world vast quantities of information about us.” We are all leaving digital footprints as we navigate through the internet. While sometimes this information can be harmless, it’s often valuable to various stakeholders, including governments, corporations, marketers, and criminals.
The ethical debate around privacy is complex. The reality is that our definition and standards for privacy have evolved over time, and will continue to do so in the next few decades.
Implications of Emerging Technologies
Protecting privacy will only become more challenging as we experience the emergence of technologies such as virtual reality, the Internet of Things, brain-machine interfaces, and much more.
Virtual reality headsets are already gathering information about users’ locations and physical movements. In the future all of our emotional experiences, reactions, and interactions in the virtual world will be able to be accessed and analyzed. As virtual reality becomes more immersive and indistinguishable from physical reality, technology companies will be able to gather an unprecedented amount of data.
It doesn’t end there. The Internet of Things will be able to gather live data from our homes, cities and institutions. Drones may be able to spy on us as we live our everyday lives. As the amount of genetic data gathered increases, the privacy of our genes, too, may be compromised.
It gets even more concerning when we look farther into the future. As companies like Neuralink attempt to merge the human brain with machines, we are left with powerful implications for privacy. Brain-machine interfaces by nature operate by extracting information from the brain and manipulating it in order to accomplish goals. There are many parties that can benefit and take advantage of the information from the interface.
Marketing companies, for instance, would take an interest in better understanding how consumers think and consequently have their thoughts modified. Employers could use the information to find new ways to improve productivity or even monitor their employees. There will notably be risks of “brain hacking,” which we must take extreme precaution against. However, it is important to note that lesser versions of these risks currently exist, i.e., by phone hacking, identify fraud, and the like.
A New Much-Needed Definition of Privacy
In many ways we are already cyborgs interfacing with technology. According to theories like the extended mind hypothesis, our technological devices are an extension of our identities. We use our phones to store memories, retrieve information, and communicate. We use powerful tools like the Hubble Telescope to extend our sense of sight. In parallel, one can argue that the digital world has become an extension of the physical world.
These technological tools are a part of who we are. This has led to many ethical and societal implications. Our Facebook profiles can be processed to infer secondary information about us, such as sexual orientation, political and religious views, race, substance use, intelligence, and personality. Some argue that many of our devices may be mapping our every move. Your browsing history could be spied on and even sold in the open market.
While the argument to protect privacy and individuals’ information is valid to a certain extent, we may also have to accept the possibility that privacy will become obsolete in the future. We have inherently become more open as a society in the digital world, voluntarily sharing our identities, interests, views, and personalities.
“The question we are left with is, at what point does the tradeoff between transparency and privacy become detrimental?”
There also seems to be a contradiction with the positive trend towards mass transparency and the need to protect privacy. Many advocate for a massive decentralization and openness of information through mechanisms like blockchain.
The question we are left with is, at what point does the tradeoff between transparency and privacy become detrimental? We want to live in a world of fewer secrets, but also don’t want to live in a world where our every move is followed (not to mention our every feeling, thought and interaction). So, how do we find a balance?
Traditionally, privacy is used synonymously with secrecy. Many are led to believe that if you keep your personal information secret, then you’ve accomplished privacy. Danny Weitzner, director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, rejects this notion and argues that this old definition of privacy is dead.
From Witzner’s perspective, protecting privacy in the digital age means creating rules that require governments and businesses to be transparent about how they use our information. In other terms, we can’t bring the business of data to an end, but we can do a better job of controlling it. If these stakeholders spy on our personal information, then we should have the right to spy on how they spy on us.
The Role of Policy and Discourse
Almost always, policy has been too slow to adapt to the societal and ethical implications of technological progress. And sometimes the wrong laws can do more harm than good. For instance, in March, the US House of Representatives voted to allow internet service providers to sell your web browsing history on the open market.
More often than not, the bureaucratic nature of governance can’t keep up with exponential growth. New technologies are emerging every day and transforming society. Can we confidently claim that our world leaders, politicians, and local representatives are having these conversations and debates? Are they putting a focus on the ethical and societal implications of emerging technologies? Probably not.
We also can’t underestimate the role of public awareness and digital activism. There needs to be an emphasis on educating and engaging the general public about the complexities of these issues and the potential solutions available. The current solution may not be robust or clear, but having these discussions will get us there.
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For Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of the most interesting things about androids is the changing questions they pose us, their creators, as they evolve. Does it, for example, do something to the concept of being human if a human-made creation starts telling you about what kind of boys ‘she’ likes?
If you want to know the answer to the boys question, you need to ask ERICA, one of Dr. Ishiguro’s advanced androids. Beneath her plastic skull and silicone skin, wires connect to AI software systems that bring her to life. Her ability to respond goes far beyond standard inquiries. Spend a little time with her, and the feeling of a distinct personality starts to emerge. From time to time, she works as a receptionist at Dr. Ishiguro and his team’s Osaka University labs. One of her android sisters is an actor who has starred in plays and a film.
ERICA’s ‘brother’ is an android version of Dr. Ishiguro himself, which has represented its creator at various events while the biological Ishiguro can remain in his offices in Japan. Microphones and cameras capture Ishiguro’s voice and face movements, which are relayed to the android. Apart from mimicking its creator, the Geminoid™ android is also capable of lifelike blinking, fidgeting, and breathing movements.
Say hello to relaxation
As technological development continues to accelerate, so do the possibilities for androids. From a position as receptionist, ERICA may well branch out into many other professions in the coming years. Companion for the elderly, comic book storyteller (an ancient profession in Japan), pop star, conversational foreign language partner, and newscaster are some of the roles and responsibilities Dr. Ishiguro sees androids taking on in the near future.
“Androids are not uncanny anymore. Most people adapt to interacting with Erica very quickly. Actually, I think that in interacting with androids, which are still different from us, we get a better appreciation of interacting with other cultures. In both cases, we are talking with someone who is different from us and learn to overcome those differences,” he says.
A lot has been written about how robots will take our jobs. Dr. Ishiguro believes these fears are blown somewhat out of proportion.
“Robots and androids will take over many simple jobs. Initially there might be some job-related issues, but new schemes, like for example a robot tax similar to the one described by Bill Gates, should help,” he says.
“Androids will make it possible for humans to relax and keep evolving. If we compare the time we spend studying now compared to 100 years ago, it has grown a lot. I think it needs to keep growing if we are to keep expanding our scientific and technological knowledge. In the future, we might end up spending 20 percent of our lifetime on work and 80 percent of the time on education and growing our skills.”
Android asks who you are
For Dr. Ishiguro, another aspect of robotics in general, and androids in particular, is how they question what it means to be human.
“Identity is a very difficult concept for humans sometimes. For example, I think clothes are part of our identity, in a way that is similar to our faces and bodies. We don’t change those from one day to the next, and that is why I have ten matching black outfits,” he says.
This link between physical appearance and perceived identity is one of the aspects Dr. Ishiguro is exploring. Another closely linked concept is the connection between body and feeling of self. The Ishiguro avatar was once giving a presentation in Austria. Its creator recalls how he felt distinctly like he was in Austria, even capable of feeling sensation of touch on his own body when people laid their hands on the android. If he was distracted, he felt almost ‘sucked’ back into his body in Japan.
“I am constantly thinking about my life in this way, and I believe that androids are a unique mirror that helps us formulate questions about why we are here and why we have been so successful. I do not necessarily think I have found the answers to these questions, so if you have, please share,” he says with a laugh.
His work and these questions, while extremely interesting on their own, become extra poignant when considering the predicted melding of mind and machine in the near future.
The ability to be present in several locations through avatars—virtual or robotic—raises many questions of both philosophical and practical nature. Then add the hypotheticals, like why send a human out onto the hostile surface of Mars if you could send a remote-controlled android, capable of relaying everything it sees, hears and feels?
The two ways of robotics will meet
Dr. Ishiguro sees the world of AI-human interaction as currently roughly split into two. One is the chat-bot approach that companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and recently Apple, employ using stationary objects like speakers. Androids like ERICA represent another approach.
“It is about more than the form factor. I think that the android approach is generally more story-based. We are integrating new conversation features based on assumptions about the situation and running different scenarios that expand the android’s vocabulary and interactions. Another aspect we are working on is giving androids desire and intention. Like with people, androids should have desires and intentions in order for you to want to interact with them over time,” Dr. Ishiguro explains.
This could be said to be part of a wider trend for Japan, where many companies are developing human-like robots that often have some Internet of Things capabilities, making them able to handle some of the same tasks as an Amazon Echo. The difference in approach could be summed up in the words ‘assistant’ (Apple, Amazon, etc.) and ‘companion’ (Japan).
Dr. Ishiguro sees this as partly linked to how Japanese as a language—and market—is somewhat limited. This has a direct impact on viability and practicality of ‘pure’ voice recognition systems. At the same time, Japanese people have had greater exposure to positive images of robots, and have a different cultural / religious view of objects having a ‘soul’. However, it may also mean Japanese companies and android scientists are both stealing a lap on their western counterparts.
“If you speak to an Amazon Echo, that is not a natural way to interact for humans. This is part of why we are making human-like robot systems. The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction. Technology has to adapt to us, because we cannot adapt fast enough to it, as it develops so quickly,” he says.
Banner image courtesy of Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, ATR all rights reserved.
Dr. Ishiguro’s team has collaborated with partners and developed a number of android systems:
Geminoid™ HI-2 has been developed by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).
Geminoid™ F has been developed by Osaka University and Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).
ERICA has been developed by ERATO ISHIGURO Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project Continue reading