Artificial Intelligence in Black Mirror
Throughout the three seasons of Black Mirror that are currently on Netflix, there are many underlying themes. All of which relate to the dangers of a new technology. One theme that really stood out to me was the impacts of artificial intelligence. This includes robots like we saw in Be Right Back as well as a couple examples of digital consciousness like in White Christmas and San Junipero.
Artificial intelligence has the opportunity to revolutionize our world. When computers become smart enough to solve problems, communicate, and operate on their own it offers lots of benefits to humans. For example, a simulation based off of a dead person’s emails, home videos, social media, and private messages may help people with their grief. Digital copies of a person’s consciousness may law enforcement a more efficient way to get confessions. And these digital consciousnesses may give people a second opportunity at life.
These three examples reflect what took place in each of the three episodes I previously mentioned. But, as is the nature of Black Mirror, each of these episodes shows the issues that also arise as a result of artificial intelligence technologies.
Since the advent of the internet in 1994, we are increasingly involved online. In Be Right Back, this is what enables the technology that brings Ash back to life. The simulated version of Ash, at first looked like a good idea. Marsha, the girlfriend Ash left behind, was able to get back to a much more normal life because she was able to act as if Ash never died. As time went on, Marsha began to notice that this simulation was similar to Ash but it would never really be him.
In my opinion, the concept Black Mirror is trying to warn us about is what can happen when robots get too close to being human and begin to show emotion. When Marsha realized that the robo-Ash was preventing her from moving on rather than helping her get over her grief, she tried to make him jump off a cliff. After telling robo-Ash that the real Ash would be crying and begging for his life, robo-Ash does exactly that. Even though Marsha knew that this reaction was just simulated emotion, she still could not make robo-Ash jump off the cliff. This kind of artificial intelligence is dangerous because the simulated emotions of a robot still have influence over the decisions humans make. Furthermore, imagine when artificial intelligence becomes so advanced that the difference between a human and a robot is indistinguishable.
In the episode White Christmas, the digital copy of a person’s consciousness is called a “Cookie”. People have a cookie of their own brain created to control their home for them. This seems like a great idea. The cookie knows how you like your toast and what temperature you like the house to be. It takes care of little things like that so that people can focus on more important things.
Furthermore, cookies can also be used by law enforcement. If a criminal won’t confess to a crime, law enforcement can create a cookie of the criminal’s brain and use whatever methods necessary to get the cookie to confess.
There are several ethical issues involving the cookies in this episode. The first being that the cookie in the first scenario does not know that it isn’t a real person. If the cookie refuses to work for the person whose brain it was taken from, the cookie is isolated until it gives in.
The second ethical issue is that the criminal’s cookie was confessed to the crime that it was technically did not commit and then law enforcement punished it as well as the actual person. If the cookie is only a simulation of the person’s brain, then why punish it too.
I think this episode demonstrates some of the ethical questions that we need to answer before artificial intelligence becomes too advanced. I believe that because the cookie displays emotions and does not know it is not a real person, that it should not be treated unfairly or be subjected to harsh punishment. Additionally, giving humans the power to play with a cookie’s “life”, even though it is just a simulation, may cause humans to treat people worse than they already do.
San Junipero gives people the access to a digital afterlife. This seems great at first because people like Yorkie, who have been paralyzed all their lives, are given a second chance at life. It also offers the opportunity to experience a digital “heaven”.
I think this episode warns about what an artificial intelligence like a digital consciousness used to secure a chance at having an afterlife can do to someone before they die. In the episode, Kelly decides to be euthanized so that she can join Yorkie in the afterlife. When you reach a certain age, I think that decision is ok. But if people give up on their real lives just to go into the simulation, that could cause some major problems in the real world. For example, if people euthanized themselves when they were younger, there would be fewer people in the workforce and the economy would suffer greatly. People would also be a lot lazier in their real lives because everybody, no matter if they did well in life or not, would end up in the paradise that is San Junipero.
Artificial intelligence has the opportunity to turn our world upside down. There are many benefits to these new technologies but they always come with unintended consequences. Black Mirror points out that some of the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence could be replacing actual human interaction for interaction with dead loved ones, ethical problems surrounding the treatment of digital consciousnesses, and the guarantee of a digital afterlife contributing to laziness in real life.