The Future of Our Brains – Health in Black Mirror
Black Mirror, the iconic British anthology series asks what could happen to our identities, memories, social and personal selves, life and death after getting in touch with the digital. What could happen to the most complex and least understood human organ, the brain, being exposed to powerful, dimension-altering perception? We pondered on whether the current state of technology and research could ever take us on the dystopian, blind alley called future in Black Mirror. [SPOILER ALERT: the article contains a detailed description of episodes]
Waldo’s predictions of politics
On the day after the U.S. election, when everyone around the world woke up to the fact that Donald Trump was going to be the 45th President of the United States, the official Twitter-feed of Black Mirror read that “This isn’t an episode. This isn’t marketing. This is reality.” The chilling line might have referred to the striking similarities between the IRL election campaign and the episode called The Waldo Moment – when a disappointed, bitter comedian runs for office as a cartoon character, and voters find the “performance” so entertaining and so much “more real” than politicians that they actually let it into power.
French postmodern philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, creator of the concept “hyperreality” would have loved it. At that moment, fiction and reality were closer to each other than never before – although it was apparently not the goal of the dystopic series. Being a producer of the show, it must have been horrifying to see a worst-case scenario come to life in the arena of politics – rhyming so well with an episode. As a matter of fact, the series aims to hold up that proverbial mirror to our society where technology promises to solve problems instantly and once-and-for-all, but instead, in most cases, it invokes the worst in human nature and leads to catastrophe. Instead of the reassuring fix, we face new troubles, unsolvable situations, death or even worse: eternal suffering in a digital hellhole.
While from virtual reality through social media until brain-computer interfaces hardly any technology remains untouched in Black Mirror, we asked what the series’ most dystopic vision about the future of human health is. As we went through the episodes, it turned out that the makers of mind-bending plots with dark twists in a technologically vibrating environment are most concerned about the future of our brains. While we aim to show you that their concerns have more than valid roots, we have faith in mankind, and we want to believe that tech developers, companies, healthcare facilities, medical professionals, regulators, and policy-makers will close the door on these fictional situations early enough to avoid catastrophic ends stemming from the symbiosis of humans and technology.
Remembering the dead through social media and digital avatars?
In the episode called Be Right Back, a member of a couple dies in a car accident. Being pregnant and unable to cope with grief, the woman tries a new technology to simulate the voice and later also the personality of his boyfriend who passed away – based mainly on his social media profile. The producers of Black Mirror are brilliant in drawing up everyday situations where the audience could totally understand why a character goes for a particular technology. After losing your partner for life, in a state of desperation and grief, any means offering a glimmer of hope will be accepted. It is not unusual for people to talk to the dead, and throughout the centuries, many tried to even get some responses. We also have a word for occasions when people try to communicate with spirits: séances.
Why would technology be absent from the tool-kit of the mourners if we even have an app for Catholics to be able to confess their sins? But where are our boundaries for including tech? For a long time, people could look at photos, videos, letters of the persons who passed away, now technology starts to offer more. Startup, Eternime, founded by MIT fellow Marius Ursache, seeks to provide comfort using digital avatars and chatbots. If you give the venture access to your social media profiles, the startup’s algorithms will scrape your posts and interactions to build a profile – they will learn how to be the online version of “you”. Then the avatars could eventually interact with your loved ones. Actually, Black Mirror only stretches the idea with putting the digital avatar into the replica of a human body perfectly mimicking the person who passed away. But could a digital avatar imitate a personality without flaw? We know how clumsily social media profiles reflect people. Should our Facebook-profiles be “carved into stone” and remain something to preserve for the future? And what happens with the digital copy when the mourning period is over? Will it get erased or stay for the “amusement” of grandchildren or grand-grandchildren? Do we want that?
Every man’s memory is his private literature
Brave New World’s writer, Aldous Huxley, said the above and he would probably be terrified how science and science fiction is tearing that notion apart. What could happen if humans had a way to access and manipulate memories? Black Mirror says the consequences might involve anger, violence, and death.
In the episode, Crocodile, technology allows people to access the memories of others. While the plot flashes the option of using the innovation to solve insurance cases or crimes, it also presents how it causes way more trouble than solution. Would the thought of someone watching and storing a memory avert a person from committing a murder? What if it placed eyewitnesses in an even riskier situation than before – just as the episode showed? Mia, the main protagonist, eventually kills off everyone who she thought could saw her murders – even a baby boy who turns out to be blind.
In the episode, The Entire History of You, a brain implant lets everyone record their memories, play it back anytime and show them to anyone. Fighting over who wore the yellow skirt at Annie’s birthday or when did the parents’ last visit become pointless, but people do have plenty of ways to wallow in details – and feed their jealousy. Do we want to live in a society where we don’t have a way to forget? That’s exactly the problem with social media and the Internet in general. Every badly designed Halloween costume or hugging ex-girlfriend is preserved for eternity, in some cases, even turning up as “memories” on Facebook every now and then. For us, the takeaway of the episode is that we will be in need for rights to forget – next to the right to be forgotten, a legal category also called into being by the digital age?
While Black Mirror poses essential ethical questions, it has to be stated that we are as far from accessing or manipulating memories as the cigar-shaped interstellar asteroid from its home galaxy. The closest we might come to somehow having an impact on our recollection of events would rather entail erasing memories – the possible consequences shown beautifully in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Currently, neuroscientists are experimenting on mice’s brains and whether they could “overwrite” negative memories with positive ones. In the future, people suffering from PTSD or depression might have their memories altered, for instance, so that they don’t have a strong emotional response to painful recollections. However, as Steve Ramirez, the lead expert in the project says, the human brain is a Lamborghini compared to the mouse’s brain, thus we won’t see any research on human memories in the near future.
Tricks on the brain are no child’s play
That’s reassuring considering how little we know about the workings of the material inside our head – in spite of extensive research efforts, such as The Human Brain Project. For example, it was only last year that neuroscientists identified that memories are simultaneously formed in the hippocampus and the long-term storage location in the brain’s cortex. The finding overwrites previous theories about memory formation and strengthens the notion that we have only some ideas how those 100 billion neurons in our head interact. However, what if we could interfere with this neural playground?
In the episode, Black Museum, a physician receives a brain implant which could be linked to an interface worn on another person, through which he can feel any sensation felt by the other individual. The plot shows how such an implant might help medical professionals literally get a sense of the pain of their patients and diagnose conditions better, but it also presents a dark and terrifying twist of how other people’s pain and suffering might be used for selfish ends. Not to speak about the character of the researcher or entrepreneur using this doctor as a laboratory mouse without any safety net or option for removing the implant.
A differently terrifying episode, Arkangel, tells the story of a desperate mother, who, after a scare at the playground, decides to get her daughter fitted with a brain implant to monitor her every move. Every parent’s nightmare is that they lose sight of their child and in that episode, technology offers an easy answer. The platform not only follows the little girl’s every step, but it also protects her from disturbing or scary visual content such as seeing a sanguine dog barking or her own blood through pixeling out unwanted images.
The plot touches upon one of the most critical questions regarding technology reducing freedom and security to a binary opposition: if you want safety and protection, you have to cope with surveillance and the loss of your freedom. Just as significant is the issue of whether parents might have the right to decide on altering their own kids’ realities so drastically or to indulge in the sensory perceptions of another human being, for that matter. Who could make such a decision, where is the possibility to opt out and who could tell a mother where to draw the line of (over)protection?
Brain-computer interfaces and implants IRL
While the question of interfering with neural data and its consequences belongs to the terrain of science fiction, ethical considerations around implants or brain-computer interfaces (BCI) could prove to be timely as research gears up around the topics. Dr. Gary Marcus, at New York University and Dr. Christof Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science said The Medical Futurist that brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was decades ago, but the field will advance significantly in the upcoming years.
Imagine a retinal chip giving you perfect eyesight or the ability to see in the dark, a cochlear implant granting you perfect hearing or a memory chip bestowing you with almost limitless memory. What if you could type into a computer with only your thoughts or control your entire smart house by sending out the necessary brainwaves?
Although that’s really galactic leaps away, the first neuroprosthetics is already on the market: you can purchase cochlear implants, and retinal implants – the latter was approved by the FDA in 2013. Moreover, implants for people with Parkinson’s disease send electrical pulses deep into the brain, activating some of the pathways involved in motor control. Rarer, but also in use, are brain implant therapies for people paralyzed by spinal cord injury or other neurological damage. A chip inserted into the brain reads off electrical signals that are translated by a computer to restore some movement and communication. However, it is challenging to make these work – and hardware just isn’t there yet. Such future implants must be non–toxic, biocompatible implanted into the brain through less invasive ways.
Nevertheless, we are confident that experts will eventually work out appropriate solutions. One possibility: making electrodes out of living tissue instead of wire. Kacy Cullen, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to do just that. Cullen and his team were able to use the living electrodes to record brain activity in rats, suggesting that the information they collect with such a system might one day be sent to a computer and used with a BCI.
As another futuristic scenario, Government Works Inc is working on BCI headsets to be used for lie detection and criminal investigations. The company claims that the technology can tell whether a person has knowledge of specific information or events. All these innovations are mind-blowing and terrifying at the same time, aren’t they?
Heaven is a place on a digital platform?
From digital avatars through brain implants and accessing memories, we arrived at questions of life and death. Will we be able to create digital copies or save our brain data at some point in the future? How would a digital afterlife look? Does it mean eternal (digital) life?
In the episode, San Junipero, two elderly women lying on their hospital beds could escape into a simulated reality, a beach resort copying the style of the 1980s. The plot follows how the two slowly fall in love and how one of them convinces the other to upload their consciousnesses to the simulation after they die in real life. The promise is they’ll live forever – or rather as long as the simulation runs on the server.
San Junipero is one of the rare episodes of Black Mirror with a positive ending, but other plots and characters in the series have shown the darker side of creating digital copies of humans and what could happen to the “lives” of those. In USS Callister, an IT guru unable to express his opinions, feelings or form relations in real life creates a simulation where he uploads digital copies of his acquaintances – just to take revenge on them for things happening IRL. These digital humans have the same feelings, characteristics, however, they are in an enclosed virtual reality completely at the mercy of their maker. The same appears in the episode, White Christmas, where digital copies serve their real-life human “masters”, or are used to get confessions out of people who don’t want to speak. These digital humans are often tortured and treated as machines. That poses the question of whether a combination of algorithms could ever represent any human consciousness and if so, what treatment would a mixture of technology and human traits require. On a more accessible level, we might think about artificial intelligence and social companion robots with smart algorithms – and how we might handle them.
Digital afterlife, brain scans, and transhumanism
Luckily, we are far from the scenarios imagined in Black Mirror. We say, thankfully, as above mentioned ethical issues should be sorted out way before any technological intrusion into our brains or the creation of digital copies. However, looking at the current technological progress, the invention of digital avatars and intrusive BCIs is not unthinkable far away.
A movement called Transhumanism with Californian roots going back to the 1980s, and science–fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Julian Huxley, now has over 10,000 members who are ready to download their neural data and live forever in digital form, leaving this biological waste we call the human body behind.
Others are rooting for the idea of scanning the brain in high spatial and chemical resolution and designing math models for all the brain cells. Through this method, digital brain emulations could be created. Such embodied emulations would be able to perform tasks that humans are bad or slow at. Some experts even say that one day these emulations might outnumber humans, leading to a new kind of society. Robin Hanson from Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute envisions that “because emulations are easily copied, you could train one to be a good lawyer and then make a billion copies who are all good lawyers.” It would undoubtedly transform society into something new and unknown. Perhaps some material for a new Black Mirror episode?
In the future, we might see near–invisible cell powered sensors, wireless non–contact EEG devices, emotional or thought reading solutions. We might have memory altering or erasing services, brain implants impacting sensory perception, digital avatars or digital copies of ourselves. Technology is advancing so fast that someday these might not only be fantasy. However, the dystopias of Black Mirror should stay on the terrain of science fiction. And as the message of the series says: it only depends on us, humans.
The most crucial aspect in innovation concerning the brain is making sure society evaluates the possible consequences and impacts carefully and profoundly. Perhaps draws up a constitution of what should and should not be done. We are now standing at a critical point in evolution that could tip entirely to technology rather than humanity with the focus on our most complicated organ. A public discussion initiated in time could allow us to win and possibly find a balance between eliminating mental disorders and using brain-computer interfaces.
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