The Reality

How the TV satire has become reality in China


Chris Middleton explains why Black Mirror and the real world are already indistinguishable from each other.

In an October 2017 article, I made the prediction that facial recognition technologies would be defeated by criminals wearing realistic 3D-printed masks of other people’s faces. This unlikely sounding story was dismissed by some as being more like an episode of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian techno-satire, than something that might happen in the real world. Yet less than a month later, The Register, CNet, and others, reported that hackers claimed to have overcome the face-recognition login of the $1k Apple iPhone X using a $150 3D mask.

The story revealed not only how fast technologies are moving, but also that the futurist’s and the satirist’s jobs are getting harder by the second. In 2017, other real-world tech stories have included: the CIA deploying AI to determine if citizens with tattoos are going to commit crimes; facial recognition technologies predicting if people are gay; and right-wing think tank Reform suggesting that robots could force teachers and doctors to compete with each other by reverse auction to work for less and less money.

Meanwhile, in China – as my facial recognition report revealed – shoppers are paying for goods with their smiles, while others are ‘beautifying’ themselves on video using skin-whitening algorithms. Any of these ideas could have appeared in a Black Mirror episode: a “dystopia that thinks it’s a utopia” as the world of the series has been described.

In 2013, Brooker told the Guardian that his series explores the side effects of the “drug” of modern technology, explaining, “The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.” But it is also a mirror held up to our times – with the opening logo cracking apart as reality breaks through – heralding years of bad luck, perhaps.

So, leaving aside the vexed questions of whether a British Prime Minister might ever have sex with a pig (‘The National Anthem’, 2011), or an offensive TV star might run for office (‘The Waldo Moment’, 2013) what other Black Mirror topics and technologies are just a swipe away from reality in today’s Trumpian, post-Cameron world?

The China syndrome

Nosedive (2016)

The story that feels most imminent is ‘Nosedive’ (2016), in which a woman’s high social rating plummets, and she finds herself exiled from the elite society that she craves membership of. Once her veneer of politeness is stripped away by her nosedive out of the rankings, she ends up locked in a room, screaming abuse at a man in the cell next door (the princess has become a troll, perhaps).

While the ‘Uberisation’ of the economy has made elements of this story real for some, that’s nothing compared to how one country is embracing the idea of awarding points for good behaviour. In 2020, China will introduce a mandatory social credit system to rate the trustworthiness of its billion-plus citizens. It is already in force on a voluntary basis.

The scheme will be all-embracing, covering citizens’ financial health, bill payments, medical records, purchases, transport use, friend networks, and more. By awarding low scores for bad behaviour, laziness, unhealthy shopping habits, and other infractions – and using AI to infer intent – China hopes that the scheme won’t just monitor people’s behaviour, but also influence it via rewards and preferential treatment.

Those with high scores will benefit from state-sanctioned loans, faster check-in at airports, prominence on dating sites, and more, while penalties for poor social rankings will include slower internet speeds, restricted access to services, travel bans, and even removal of the right to buy certain goods.

The government says the programme will forge “a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity, and the construction of judicial credibility.

“If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere,” adds the policy, which will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”. A draconian statement that goes far beyond Brooker’s light-hearted episode.

Crime and dissent eliminated at the checkout? The ultimate commentary on a consumer economy, perhaps: the ‘gamification’ of conformity, big data meets Big Brother. Citizens will be warned off befriending people with low social scores, while some analysts have predicted the emergence of a black market for good reputations.

But the scheme begs the questions: what if the data is wrong? What if the system is biased against certain groups – ethnic minorities, LGBTQ citizens, and so on? What if people are penalised for something that isn’t their fault, and the problem snowballs – just like in the Black Mirror episode? I’ve explored the problem of machine-generated verdicts and sentences in this report, while the challenge of bias in AI-based programmes is discussed here.

Over time, some Chinese citizens risk becoming ‘non-people’ – individuals who are ‘blocked’ from their own society, a concept explored in the disturbing episode ‘White Christmas’ (2014), in which Jon Hamm – Mad Men’s Don Draper – plays a character who is deleted from the world, becoming a featureless, voiceless shadow figure in the eyes of the tech-enabled populace.

Make way for the transhuman

Of course, human beings have always been data: everything about who we are is encoded in our DNA. But this trend towards big data merging with our everyday lives suggests that the world of another episode, ‘The Entire History of You’ (2011) – in which the ‘Grain’ brain implant records every moment for instant replay – is also just around the corner.

The idea of embedding electronic devices in the human body is nothing new: transhumanists are a widespread group who believe that human beings and machines will eventually merge. Some of them experiment with tech implants – robotics expert Prof. Kevin Warwick injected a chip in his arm as far back as the mid-1990s. Transhumanists even have their own social network [http://humanityplus.org].

Meanwhile, millennials record every aspect of their lives, while many of us use wearable devices such as Fitbits, smart watches, VR headsets, and smart earbuds – the first step on a journey towards incorporating those devices into our bodies, perhaps. But that journey isn’t inevitable. Neither Google Glass nor Snapchat spectacles, which allow wearers to record whatever they see, have caught on in large numbers, partly because their wearers are seen as invading other people’s privacy. Other reasons for the lack of uptake include the reality of recording reams of useless data.

But as facial recognition systems enter our world en masse over the next few years, it is likely that these barriers will eventually be seen as blips, as we all become used to being watched (and watching) more overtly. At that point, the blocking explored in ‘White Christmas’ (which is already an option on dating apps and social platforms, of course) may become a horrifying reality.

And as virtual, augmented, and mixed-reality environments become more prevalent alongside location-based services, the number of use cases for wearables that remove the need to carry bulky hardware will rise. Projectors already exist that can turn any hard surface into a touchscreen interface, the latest Apple Watch no longer needs to be linked to a smartphone, and so on, so over time we may no longer need our tablets and phones. At that point, the journey towards integrating our devices with ourselves will gather new momentum.

New resolutions

San Junipero (2016)

Arguably, the entire history of technology itself can be seen as a journey towards higher resolutions. After all, we’ve gone from VHS to ultra high-def 4k video within a single human generation, and from crude eight-bit gaming to the type of immersive reality and photo-realism explored in the episode ‘Playtest’ (2016).

And with Moore’s Law clearing the path to ever greater storage, computing power, and processing speeds, the world depicted in the critically lauded episode ‘San Junipero’ (2016) could also become a reality – an episode that asks the question, Do you want to live forever?

What begins as a romantic, Thelma and Louise-style buddy movie is gradually revealed to be a story about two elderly women using immersive reality to relive their youth in an idealised 1980s world: the ultimate retirement home and – the story suggests – eventually a heaven on Earth. When human consciousness can be uploaded to a vast computer system, the two women can find each other again in San Junipero and live there forever.

A similar concept was explored in the episode ‘Be Right Back’ (2013), in which a replica of a woman’s dead lover is created from all the data that remains online, and in the 2017 movie ‘Marjorie Prime’, in which an ageing woman shares her life with a simulation of her long-dead husband.

Mind uploading, aka ‘whole-brain transfer’, is a theoretical concept that some transhumanists and AI experts are working towards as a means to extend life. Indeed, some see it as a logical endpoint of neural network research. In theory, there is no need to fully understand the workings of the human brain if it can simply scanned in microscopic depth and digitally replicated – perhaps 3D printed – and either stored in virtual reality, or in a robot, computer, or bio-engineered body.

But would it be the same person, or merely a facsimile? Or would it be a new consciousness entirely – one that is free to make new memories? These are intriguing questions, particularly when billionaire technologist Elon Musk believes that we may all be living in a computer simulation; merely characters in an advanced society’s Matrix-style virtual world. That belief is shared by a number of scientists today.

Either way, it’s conceivable that this may be one of the destinations in our shared journey with science and technology: not disproving that the afterlife exists, but creating it for ourselves and our loved ones. And perhaps, an unknown number years into the future, even building a new universe ourselves, stored in vast quantum processors.

And if Elon Musk is right about the universe we live in today, there may be an infinite regression of simulated universes; a multiverse of data. So does the real one even exist? Look in the Black Mirror and see.

• A new six-episode series of Black Mirror debuts on Netflix on December 29, 2017.

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• For more articles on robotics, AI, and automation, go to the Robotics Expert page.
• A version of this article was first published on Hack & Craft News.

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© Chris Middleton 2017.