Saying a TV show is “so good it’s scary” is usually a figure of speech. With Netflix’s hit sci-fi drama “Black Mirror,” it takes on a far more literal (and terrifying) interpretation.
“This is futurism for futurists,” Dylan Hendricks, program director of the Ten-Year Forecast at the research organization the Institute for the Future, told Business Insider.
Part of what makes “Black Mirror” so unsettling is that its episodes take place in worlds that could easily pass for our own, save for some leaps in technology.
Curious just how big those leaps might be, Business Insider spoke with Hendricks about which of the show’s 19 episodes are closest to becoming reality.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Black Mirror.”
“The National Anthem”
Not every episode of “Black Mirror” explores a brand-new dystopia-creating technology; some take existing technology and apply it in disquieting ways.
In the pilot episode, terrorists threaten to kill a hostage unless the British prime minister has sexual intercourse with a pig on national television.
“I can’t think of anything that wasn’t realistic,” Hendricks said. At least from a technology perspective, “it’s totally possible.” (It also may have actually happened, if the stories about former PM David Cameron’s university antics are true.)
“Fifteen Million Merits”
The second episode in the series imagines a distant future in which people must pedal on stationary bikes to power their building and earn currency (“merits”) for food and entertainment.
Hendricks said the episode rethinks the entire nature of society based on the trend of “freemium” mobile games, create feedback loops of desire that keep people coming back for more. He said this episode is the one his colleagues find most satisfying to watch because it takes a real-world phenomenon to its most extreme.
“This is a very different alien society than the one we live in,” he said, “and one that has taken our phones and turned them into the built environment.”
“The Entire History of You”
In this episode, the show imagines what might happen if people could record every waking moment of their lives and rewatch the memories whenever they wanted. The device is called a “grain.”
Hendricks acknowledged no such technology is capable of tapping into memories so directly, but we seem to be inching toward such a future with devices like Snap Inc.’s Spectacles — camera-equipped sunglasses that can record up to 10 seconds of video.
Hendricks said the only leap the episode makes is saying the technology will get cheaper, better, and more widespread.
“Be Right Back”
After a woman’s husband dies, she learns about a service that can use machine learning to essentially bring him back to life, using photos, videos, and social media posts to recreate his essence.
At first, she just chats with him online. Then they speak by phone. Finally, a real-life version is living with her and helping to raise her daughter.
Those first two forms of communication already exist in the world, Hendricks said. Chatbots running artificial intelligence and personality detection services like Crystal, which pulls online data about people so users can tailor emails and messages to their personality, reveal the steps we’re taking to make AI as smart as humans someday.
“The Waldo Moment”
When a comedian does too good of a job as the voice of Waldo, a CGI cartoon bear, he learns Waldo will run for office. And he begins to succeed, much to the comedian’s chagrin.
Hendricks said this is another case similar to “The National Anthem,” in which the social commentary on politics often favoring entertainment over substance is much stronger than the technology predictions. However, it is a fairly common technique to map human behaviors to an avatar.
Most recently, Facebook demonstrated its plans to create avatars of people using Oculus Rift virtual reality.
The season two finale uses a few advanced forms of technology in telling two stories: one of a man who helps men get dates thanks to in-eye cameras that livestream their dates, and another of a man whose unhappy wife “blocks” his in-eye camera so that all he can see and hear of her is a muffled gray silhouette.
There is also a third technology called a “cookie” that uses a downloaded consciousness as a kind of personal assistant.
Hendricks said the first two ideas are plausible, while the third is pure fantasy. Consumer apps like Periscope enable livestreaming, while artificial eyeballs already have some footing in research that gives retinas to blind mice. “Assuming some kind of augmented reality technology as a given, the actual ‘blocking’ of people in real life also doesn’t seem that far-fetched,” he said.
The first episode of the third season relies on a system of social ratings similar to how people can issue ratings for on-demand services like Uber or Postmates. Each person has a permanent contact lens that lets them see a rating beside people’s heads and see how ratings influence the score in real-time.
Microsoft’s Hololens is the closest analog in today’s technology, Hendricks said, even if the goggles are still much clunkier than a sleek contact.
He also pointed to the system of social credit scores taking off in China, in which citizens earn specific scores for how often they default on loan payments, get traffic tickets, and break other forms of “social trust.” Chronic trust-breakers can have a harder time accessing certain services.
“Shut Up and Dance”
Cybersecurity is front and center in the third episode of the third season, as hackers spying through a teenager’s webcam blackmail him into a series of high-risk and sometimes fatal encounters.
“I would say ‘Shut Up and Dance’ is more of a terrifying PSA than anything else,” Hendricks said.
Hackers already take over people’s webcams and leak sensitive personal information around the world. “Black Mirror” gets novel in exploring what might happen if the hackers decide to have some fun with their victims.
“Men Against Fire”
Another episode based in augmented reality, “Men Against Fire” imagines a military technology that changes what soldiers see, smell, and hear to make the horrors of war more tolerable.
And like the other AR-based episodes, Hendricks said this one feels close to home for him as a futurist given many of today’s technologies began in military contexts. In civilian life, too, research at Stanford is exploring face-swapping technology, while Snapchat already lets users perform a version of the same.
“Hated in the Nation”
The season three finale explores the consequences of a massive hack of autonomous drone insects, which pollinate flowers in a post-bee world. The hacked bees are told to kill one person, who’s selected by people on Twitter with the hashtag “#DeathTo.”
Hendricks said this episode is surprisingly realistic. On the one hand, robotics are already shrinking to the size of (admittedly large) insects with Prox Dynamics, a Norwegian company that makes drones the size of hummingbirds.
The season four premiere begins with an episode reminiscent of “Star Trek,” only the spaceship and its entire crew are digital creations that live within a tech executive’s mind. Pushed around at work, the executive uploaded his coworkers’ DNA to a computer that digitizes their consciousness so he can be their virtual overlord.
Hendricks said the tech behind consciousness-uploading is farfetched, but companies are perfectly capable of recreating pieces of people’s identities to startling degrees.
Apple has made great strides in facial recognition and replication, specifically with the new iPhone X, and a Canadian startup called Lyrebird has created technology that can nearly replicate a person’s voice if given enough samples to draw from.
An overprotective mom has a chip implanted into her daughter’s head that lets the mother see and hear everything that the daughter does. She can even check an app that shows her the daughter’s biometric data and allows her to blur out scary imagery, such as a barking dog, directly from the girl’s vision.
Hendricks believed this episode is among the most plausible in the newest season. Fitness trackers capture biometric data, and companies like Catapult, a performance analytics company, can gather data on athletes’ movements and health.
In 2011, researchers at Berkeley even crafted together a rough sketch of people’s vision by measuring their brain activity in an MRI, and based on the patterns they saw, reproduced what the person might be looking at.
“Hang the DJ”
Frustrated by a dating system that automatically pairs people together with no free will, a man and woman decide to escape — ultimately realizing they live in a simulation of an ultra-intelligent dating app. In real life, their phones spit out a 99.8% match score based on 1,000 such simulations.
Aside from the main characters’ gift of consciousness, Hendricks said dating apps will almost certainly become sophisticated enough to run simulations like this.
“We already have a lot of algorithmic matching going on on different dating sites,” he said. “As we accumulate more data about ourselves, about how people are reacting in different situations, I won’t be surprised if we find in the next two years a system that can match people with these kinds of percentages.”
In the second-to-last episode of the fourth season, a woman flees a robotic dog that is chasing her through a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Hendricks said this episode is by far the most plausible in the latest season, since the only real technology is the artificial intelligence of the killer-robot dogs. Boston Dynamics has already developed a stable of machines that resemble the four-legged “Black Mirror” villain (including its original creation, ” target=”_blank”Big Dog”).
“There’s a militaristic advantage to having either a bomb-sniffing unit crossed with a unit that can be used for scouting or protection,” he said. “So I think clear economic forces will ensure that something like this exists, unfortunately.”
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