Your Digital Self: Which technology in Netflix’s ‘Black Mirror’ will change our lives first?

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Technology can be amazing, and watching how it changes our lives with each new breakthrough and discovery is inspiring.

Humanity has gone a long way since the introduction of the first punch-card computer, and many things that we take for granted today belonged to the domain of sci-fi just a few decades ago. New tech can create new possibilities, though sometimes in unpredictable, and scary, ways.

“Black Mirror” is a British TV series on Netflix NFLX, -1.29%  that tackles the most controversial consequences of unchecked technology. The show was created by Charlie Brooker, who noted that “each episode has a different cast, a different setting and even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now; and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

How close are we to fulfilling any of the scenarios from the series? For the sake of brevity, we’ll consider only season four, the latest. This article contains spoilers.

“USS Callister”

This episode deals with digital clones — could they really be perfect copies that retain our memories and awareness? And if that’s the case, how would the clones react to being placed in the digital world of a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game? I’ve already covered the topic in great detail in this article, so I suggest you to take a look.

In short, even if we were able to create digital clones from real people, the copies would be complex algorithms emulating human thought processes, and not sentient beings. However, this episode does deal with something we already have in contemporary online gaming: toxic gamers who fail to treat other players as real human beings, and regard them only as objects or means of furthering their own goals. This results in many forms of bullying and verbal abuse, as well as generally inappropriate online behavior.

“Arkangel”

After nearly losing her daughter, a mother invests in new tracking technology. The teenager has an implant embedded in her head, and the mother is given a tablet that can receive data from the implant and display the output. Using the device, the mother not only knows where her daughter is, but also what she sees and hears, and her current health status. She can also modify the girl’s sight and hearing by “filtering out” stimuli that she deems harmful. Needless to say, this total-control scenario can’t possibly end well. So how close are we to this?

We’re chipping our pets on a regular basis, and workers in several companies have already been “offered” the privilege of having RFID chips implanted in their hands that would allow them to log into computers and open doors. Implants and biometric tattoos that track body temperature, skin salinity and several other metrics already exist.

Finally, we can attach tiny locators to our car keys, wallets and other items we wish to track via our smartphones, so it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to create an implant or an advanced type of biometric tattoo that can do all this and more. I’m very much against these types of devices, because they would mean the true death of privacy and freedom for individuals.

“Crocodile”

This episode features a special machine that can display human memories on a CRT screen, along with the accompanying sound. This may shock you, but first steps toward such a device have already been made. Scientists from UC Berkeley were able to capture visual activity in human brains and reconstruct it in the form of video clips.

As you can see, they just barely resemble the displayed image, but the similarities are definitely there. This discovery was made almost six years ago and, since then, decoding algorithms have somewhat improved (footage from 2016):

We still have a long way to go, but it looks like similar machines could become widespread in the future. (They could be used for police work, entertainment and in military applications.)

“Hang the DJ”

In this episode, we’re treated to a future where seemingly everyone leaves the task of finding the love of their life to an artificial-intelligence (AI) app that runs thousands of simulations until a perfect match is found. This scenario is rooted in reality — the AI in the show does exactly what current versions do. The neural network is being fed data until its algorithms recognize patterns, and then use them to calculate possible outcomes.

The issue here is overreliance on the AI — with religions already forming around it, this too threatens to be a part of our future. Let’s hope it won’t come to that.

“Metalhead”

This post-apocalyptic scenario deals with a land overrun by robotic guard dogs. These quadrupedal robots are capable of tracking targets by filling them full of tracking shrapnel. They can easily navigate uneven terrain and adapt to various scenarios, including fashioning makeshift weapons.

I see these robots as anything but futuristic. DARPA has already developed many versions of quadruped robots, and many have been improved to the level where they can run and reach speeds of 28 miles per hour, which is on par with the fastest recorded human (27.8 mph). In 2015, one model (Cheetah) was shown to successfully jump over obstacles, and with even more advanced iterations, it’s only a matter of time until we see these metallic monstrosities used in war or during protests and civil unrest.

“Black Museum”

Although this episode itself is a collection of several bizarre stories, for the sake of brevity, I will discuss only one: a doctor’s empathic implant goes haywire with terrible consequences.

Our doctor was implanted with technology that enabled him to experience what his patient was feeling, which helped him immensely in making a more accurate diagnosis. Although no such device exists today, there are people called mirror-touch synaesthetes who can actually sense what others are feeling without using any kind of device. If another person gets touched or punched, mirror-touch synaesthetes can feel it.

This may not be as specific as the implant from the story, but these individuals are already being studied in an effort to uncover what helps them reach such advanced levels of empathy. Once science uncovers the underlying mechanisms, it’s not hard to imagine pairing two individuals via brain or spine implants that serve as emitter and receiver, and communicate wirelessly.

The emitter one would detect pain, pleasure, nausea and other sensations a first subject would experience, and then it would transfer them to the person with a receiver implant in the form of electrical pulses. Once these pulses stimulated the appropriate brain center, it would respond by creating the sensation in the receiver’s brain, and bingo — both of them would feel the same sensation.

I can already see how such tech could be (ab)used in various military scenarios, as well as in the (adult) entertainment industry. It’s a risky concept, even with the device that can transfer signals wirelessly, because there’s still the issue of psychological trauma, as well as brain injury or permanent damage from overstimulation or by other unforeseen causes that the receiver might sustain.

Of all the episodes in the fourth season of “Black Mirror,” this one seems the most far-fetched. Maybe that’s for the best.

What technology in “Black Mirror” is most interesting to you? Let me know in the comment section below.