Black Mirror: fictional dystopia or bleak reality?

Posted: 18 November 2016 | By Darcie Thompson-Fields

It’s fair to say artificial intelligence has had a rough ride when it comes to television and the big screen.

For every robot looking to help the human race – think Disney’s Wall-E, there’s one seemingly intent on destroying it – think Terminator and ExMachina. We don’t know whether we should be excited or terrified.

Access AI recently spoke with the host of The Gadget Show, Jason Bradbury, who insisted that movies and TV are “the best place to look for a blueprint of the future.”

With that in mind, Access AI decided to take an analytical look at the recently aired third season of the hit TV series Black Mirror.

The show, which first appeared on British television back in 2011 before switching to Netflix for its latest six-episode outing, has achieved rave reviews and engaged audiences with its dark and sometimes satirical themes that examine modern society and the unanticipated consequences of new technologies.

In the latest season, it delves even further into our technology fears, exploring themes including Twitter mobs, augmented reality and our obsession with social media.

But just how close are we to these seemingly terrifying advancements? The answers may surprise. Warning: Spoilers ahead.


Episode Guide

Nosedive, Netflix


Synopsis: In a future where social status relies entirely upon an Uber style rating, our protagonist Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard), gets an opportunity to boost her rating by acting as maid of honor for an old friend.  Members of society who achieve high fours within the five-star system enjoy special privileges, whilst those with low rankings are treated like outcasts.

Analysis: Social media has become a part of our everyday lives with Facebook having 1.13 billion daily active users and over 300 million on Instagram.

Nosedive explores what would happen if the approval rating we give on social media spilled over into our daily lives. Thankfully the only rating currently affecting you is how pleasant you are as an Uber passenger. However, China may be introducing a ‘social credit system’ that ranks citizens based on their financial standing, criminal record and social media behavior.

In the pastel-coloured future presented by Nosedive, contact lenses with digital screens show wearers information about people and their ratings. Wearable technology is constantly advancing. Whilst devices like Google Glass aren’t there yet, developments are allowing us to take our technology with us.

Playtest, Netflix


Synopsis: American Backpacker Cooper, played by Wyatt Russell, runs out of money after a global trip ending in England. To earn some extra cash, Cooper agrees to test a new augmented reality game for fictional company Saito. Implanted with a “mushroom” that can tap into his brain’s neural network to establish his worst fears, he tests “the most personal survival horror game in history”.

Analysis: 2016 has seen augmented reality overtake virtual reality in popularity with the launch of games like Pokémon Go. Microsoft’s new HoloLens, an augmented reality headset, projects 3D holograms that you can interact with, much like the whack-a-mole game Cooper first experiences in Playtest. Brooker even cited the device as inspiration when writing the episode.  Cooper goes on to test a horror game inspired by those popular in the genre such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

Though immersive entertainment experiences are growing in a way that will capture all our senses, we are away off technology that can be directly implanted into your brain.

MIT also recently created their Nightmare machine, an algorithm that learns how to scare you. “Creating a visceral emotion such as fear remains one of the cornerstone of human creativity. The challenge is especially important in a time where we wonder what the limits of Artificial Intelligence are,” says Nightmare Machine’s website.

Shut Up and Dance, Netflix

Shut Up and Dance

Synopsis: Set in present-day England, ‘Shut Up and Dance’ plays on the familiarly disturbing theme of surveillance. The episode focuses on Kenny (Alex Lawther), a shy teenage fast-food worker. Malware is downloaded onto his laptop and records Kenny masturbating. He is notified by an anonymous email that someone was watching. The hackers then blackmail Kenny and others into completing tasks to avoid having their secrets shared with the world. The twist comes at the end of the episode when we are left questioning who the true victim is.

Analysis: Shut Up and Dance is arguably one of the most terrifying episodes this season due to the likelihood of it happening to anyone of us. The theme of online security is a hot topic, with the UK Government recently announcing it will spend £1.9 billion on a national cyber security strategy in the wake of the DDOS attack which took down hundreds of popular sites.

Privacy is also a concern for many with the development of surveillance technology and the UK’s ‘Snoopers Charter’.

San Junipero, Netflix

San Junipero

Synopsis: In the most hopeful episode of the otherwise dark anthology, two women meet in a fictional 80s party town. Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meet in a night-club and a touching romance ensues. It soon becomes apparent that San Junipero is not all it seems. Revealing itself to be a fictional reality where the dead can upload their consciousness and live in eternal bliss and the elderly can visit for five hours per week.

Analysis: San Junipero introduces the concept of ‘nostalgia therapy’ a kind of virtual-reality system that allows users to play in a simulated beach town in the era of their choice and remain there once they die.

VR games such as Second Life have been around for a while but the developments of headsets previously mentioned could help to make these a multi-sensory experience.

Using technology for life after death is a concept that Black Mirror has explored previously. In its season two episode, Be Right Back, a grieving widow Martha (Hayley Atwell), uses AI to recreate her deceased partner. The service that allows Atwell to ‘communicate’ with her partner Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) is not too advanced from the latest chatbots. With Martha having to submit data on Ash, consisting of all their messages, his social media profiles and any voice recordings. The software presumably uses machine learning and natural language processing to artificially recreate his personality.

Researchers at MIT have also been exploring ways to create a posthumous digital impression of ourselves. Applying artificial intelligence to the data that we produce every day, we may soon be able to transfer our thoughts to a virtual entity that survives us.

Men Against Fire, Netflix

Men Against Fire

Synopsis: Protagonist, Stripes (Malachi Kirby) and his fellow soldiers are tasked with eliminating “roaches”.  Soldiers are implanted with a system that gives them access to advanced combat systems, instant technical data, and the ability to see their targets as monsters. Stripe starts to question his orders when his system glitches and shows the truth behind the false information fed to him and his squad mates.

Analysis: Another delve into the realm of virtual and augmented reality, but with military applications. The imagined technology changes what soldiers see, hear and even smell to make the horrors of war more tolerable.

Most technologies begin in military contexts before being applied to everyday use. AI for use in defense is being developed across the globe, with the US Pentagon beginning work on autonomous robots earlier this year.

Face-swapping technology was brought to the masses through a Snapchat filter, but the technology continues to advance. Face2Face, a project by researchers at University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Stanford University, is a technology that allows for face-swapping in real-time. Meaning that you could manipulate the face of someone in a target video through your ordinary webcam.

Hate In the Nation, Netflix

Hated In the Nation

Synopsis: Targets of Twitter hate-storms become murder victims and London Met detectives, Karin Parke (Kelly Macdonald) and Blue (Fay Marsay) are called to investigate. Developments in the case point to links with Autonomous Drone Insects – or ADIs – bee like robots that have been created to help pollinate British flowers and crops after the decline of the country’s native honey bee population. The feature-length episode explores what can happen when trolls go too far.

Analysis: Hate incited on social media is a very real issue, with many figures being vilified and targeted through hashtags. And while social media storms can result in very real threats, the anger will often dissipate and die down. In Hated in the Nation, targets of the hashtag ‘#DeathTo’ are murdered by hacked drone insects.

Terrifyingly tiny drones may be in development. The UK’s IRIS (innovation and research) unit, an MoD project, received £880 million in funding earlier this year. Its innovative weapon ideas included ‘tiny dragonfly drones’ which can be used in urban warfare.

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