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The 'Black Mirror' Technology that Will Soon Be Real (Part 2)

​This week, we take a look at the real-life research that's being done today to make the scenarios we see in the second half of Black Mirror a reality.
January 5, 2015, 2:00pm
​Screengrab: Channel 4

This post contains spoilers for season two and the Christmas special of Black Mirror.

Last week, we took a look at the companies and researchers who are making the technology of the first four episodes of the wonderfully dark Black Mirror possible. The second half of the satirical series may seem a little more improbable (I can't find any real-life comparison to the Christmas special's real-life "blocking"—which digitally turns people you don't want to talk to into static blobs), but we're actually seeing the first inklings of a lot of this stuff—even the memory deleting and digital life bits.


So, let's just get into it.

"White Bear"

Screengrab: Channel 4

Wow, this was a bleak, bleak episode. You weren't alone if you had no idea what the hell was going on for the first 30 minutes or so. In the episode, a young woman named Victoria wakes up after an apparent suicide attempt, not knowing who she is or where she is. Everyone she encounters is filming her and no one will help; meanwhile, she's being chased by several people who apparently want to torture and crucify her. Lovely. And then, the big reveal: Victoria is a murderer who sat by and filmed as her boyfriend killed a young girl. Every day, she's forced to relive something like that same fate as tourists visit (and film) her in an elaborate and awful theatre-like performance at White Bear Prison Park.

If we're looking at it from a purely technological point of view, the only real piece of new tech is the halo she wears at the end of the episode that wipes her memories clean every day, Men in Black-style. That's certainly not happening anytime soon, but scientists are indeed working on the technology to delete memories.

Let me explain: Don Arnold, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, has worked out how to watch memories form in mice, which is the first step toward eventually manipulating memory to bend to our will. By using a gene that makes jellyfish glow in the dark, Arnold created a probe that could bind to certain memory-forming synapses in mice. The next step, and something he's actively working on, is taking a certain memory, once we know how it's formed, and getting rid of it altogether.


"The idea, the dream experiment, would be to have the animal learn something, then look at which synapses have changed, and then go in and delete those synapses to see if the animal has unlearned it," he told me.

So, to speculate wildly, the team at White Bear park could watch Victoria's memories form every day and then, using that halo device, go in and target the synapses that formed specific connections within her brain to get rid of them. Repeat every day, and, voila.

As for the state of society in the episode? Well, even for a satirical show like Black Mirror, this one seems quite unlikely to happen. The whole eye-for-an-eye thing is something Western society has decided doesn't work all that well, thankfully.

Tourists at Bolivia's San Pedro Prison. Image:  ​Brennan Paezold/Flickr

Prison tourist parks—with active prisoners—also seem like a bridge too far. But, surprise surprise, it's not: For years, Bolivia's San Pedro Prison—a self-sustaining community that takes up a whole city block in the middle of La Paz—has been a major tourist attraction. Convicted murders are bodyguards for tourists who want to see where a significant portion of the country's cocaine gets processed and trafficked. The government has regularly cracked down on these tours, but every so often, the guards are willing to let people bribe their way in (as far as I know, it's now quite difficult to go on a tour; in the past, it was as easy as walking up to the front gate and paying a small fee).


And, lastly, I'm not going to touch on the "White Bear" signal that apparently turned all the people in the fictional "town" into camera-toting zombies, as it was later revealed that it was simply a cover for all the tourists who wanted to watch Victoria's torture.

"The Waldo Moment"

Screengrab: Channel 4

After the mindfuck that was "White Bear," "Waldo" felt like an entirely different show. Many  ​have suggested that it's the weakest episode of Black Mirror, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. We follow Jamie Salter, a comedian who voices and performs movements for a foul-mouthed cartoon bear named Waldo. After jokingly entering the political race for a local election, Waldo becomes immensely popular and seems to have a shot at winning.

The main technology here, of course, is Waldo—a motion capture bear whose movements are animated in real time. We've already got that technology: A company called Motus Digital sells live animated characters, and its " Larry the Zombie" character at SXSW last year appears to be every bit as convincing as Waldo. There's also Hatsune Miku, a "virtual pop star" who is currently Japan's most popular "musician."

With that out of the way, let's quickly touch on a couple campaigns that are somewhat similar to Waldo's: We of course have Stephen Colbert's temporary entrance into the South Carolina presidential primary race in 2008 (his application to formally get his name on the ballot was denied by the election board there); he was polling against then-serious candidates Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Dennis Kucinich. Colbert fared even better amongst his key demographics of 18-29 year olds. Comedian Pat Paulsen also ran for president six separate times, but never gained the sort of media hype that Colbert (and Waldo) did.

Outside the United States, seemingly joke candidates have fared better and have even won important political seats. In Brazil, Francisco Silva is a hugely popular congressman. He's most famous, however, for being a clown known as Tiririca. He campaigned as Tiririca and ran on a platform of look-how-messed-up-politics-is-here, much like Waldo, and he won.

In Iceland, a comedian anarchist named Jon Gnarr was mayor of Reykjavik from 2010 - 2014 after being elected thanks to running on a platform of "free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo, all kinds of things for weaklings."


"White Christmas"

Screengrab: Channel 4

There's a lot to unpack in the just-aired, three part Black Mirror Christmas special. Jon Hamm is a communications facilitator: In the first part of the episode, he's something of a pick-up artist coach, using augmented reality (which is, basically, a digital overlay of information on real life that's projected by contact lenses or something like Google Glass) and in-eye live streaming to help an awkward guy pick up a woman at a Christmas party. When things go seriously awry, Hamm is first "blocked" by his wife, which turns both parties into white, staticky blobs who can't be interacted with by the blocker or the blocked.

He's eventually arrested and cooperates with the police to coax a confession out of a man who has killed his estranged lover's father. The twist? He does this in a simulated reality, and he gets the confession thanks to the use of some extreme time torture and manipulation—the killer feels like he's been living in a cabin in the wilderness for years; it's actually only been several minutes.

Still with me? First things first: "White Christmas" is the first episode in which it's tough to compare a major piece of tech to anything we've seen today. "Blocking" is the dystopian future of restraining orders which, as far as I can tell, is a social construct that hasn't had much in the way of technological innovation research poured into it lately. Yes, we can block people on Facebook and Twitter and block their phone numbers and that sort of thing; but blocking their physical being? That's wacky.

The closest we get today is NO AD, an ad blocker for the real world. Using Google Glass, the app is able to recognize ads in the New York subway and instantly replaces them with digital art.

Beyond blocking, however, there's lots of interesting current day tech and ideas that we could be used to create something similar to what we see in the episode. Augmented reality is harder to pull off than virtual reality, what with the ever-changing and unpredictable nature of the regular reality we're augmenting, but Google just spent a very lot of money ($542 million) investing in a company called Magic Leap that has supposedly solved many of the problems associated with AR.


An app called NameTag, meanwhile, is the first facial recognition Google Glass app that can automatically look up a person's social media profile if you simply look at them.

Live streaming is already a thing, augmented reality contact lenses are in the works, and I'm done talking about the pickup artist segment of the episode.

On to the far more fascinating idea of digital clone slaves. "White Christmas" implies that these slaves are made using DNA and would require some sort of surgery in order to create, which is a slightly different idea than we were exposed to in "Be Right Back," where digital clones were approximated using social media histories and digital trails.

Here, the more appropriate real-life comparison would probably be, broadly, mind uploading, and, more specifically the OpenWorm project ( both of which I mentioned in part I): In this international collaborative project, the brain of a nematode is being uploaded, neuron by neuron, into a computer program. The plan is to create artificial life by making a worm that behaves digitally in the same way that one does in real life. Obviously, it's just a worm, but the plan is to eventually do more complex organisms.

"If we cannot build a computer model of a worm, the most studied organism in all of biology, we don't stand a chance to understand something as complex as the human brain," the team working on the project wrote.


If we accept, then, that digital life is possible, then we need to look at the idea of time manipulation in a wholly simulated reality. Which is, well, a piece of cake. It really shouldn't be any different than changing a couple lines of code, messing with a slider knob, changing a variable in a simulation like we have been doing for years in climate modeling, in space and universe simulations, in games like SimCity.

But what if we don't figure out simulated life? There's still the possibility of making criminals suffer by slowing down time—or extending life indefinitely. At Oxford University, philosopher Rebecca Roache and her colleagues have begun contemplating what the future of justice looks like, and it's horrifying.

"As biotech companies pour billions into life extension technologies, some have suggested that our cruelest criminals could be kept alive indefinitely, to serve sentences spanning millennia or longer," an Aeon magazine article about Roache's work noted last year. "Even without life extension, private prison firms could one day develop drugs that make time pass more slowly, so that an inmate's 10-year sentence feels like an eternity. One way or another, humans could soon be in a position to create an artificial hell."

A NASA paper on the ethics of virtual reality, in fact, noted that "there may be various senses of time," that can be experienced in virtual reality, and that "new ways of thinking of time arise from the fact that a user may wish to manipulate time flow."

There are, of course, major ethical implications to actually ever implementing millennia-long sentences on people, no matter what the crime. And, yes, it's farfetched, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Most of the technologies explored in the final three episodes (for now) of Black Mirror are a bit more speculative than what we saw in the first four. We won't have digital slaves next year, and we probably won't see anything like it for quite some time. Even when we do have the technological capability to, say, simulate a human life, we will have hopefully figured out many of the ethical problems that go along with it. If we're going to get there, these are what the first steps look like.