“Black Mirror” Reflections: U.S.S. Callister (S4, E1)

This Black Mirror reflection will explore season 4, episode 1, which is titled “U.S.S. Callister”.  You can click here to read my last Black Mirror reflection (season 3, episode 2: “Playtest”).  In U.S.S. Callister, we’re pulled into the life of Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the Chief Technical Officer at Callister Inc., a game development company that has produced a multiplayer simulated reality game called Infinity.  Within this game, users control a starship (an obvious homage to Star Trek), although Daly, the brilliant programmer behind this revolutionary game, has his own offline version of the game which has been modded to look like his favorite TV show Space Fleet, where Daly is the Captain of the ship.

We quickly learn that most of the employees at Callister Inc. don’t treat Daly very kindly, including his company’s co-founder James Walton (Jimmy Simpson).  Daly appears to be an overly passive, shy, introvert.  During one of Daly’s offline gaming sessions at home, we come to find out that the Space Fleet characters aboard the starship look just like his fellow employees, and as Captain of his simulated crew, he indulges in berating them all.  Due to the fact that Daly is Captain and effectively controls the game, he is rendered nearly omnipotent, and able to force his crew to perpetually bend to his will, lest they suffer immensely.

It turns out that these characters in the game are actually conscious, created from Daly having surreptitiously acquired his co-workers’ DNA and somehow replicated their consciousness and memories and uploaded them into the game (and any biologists or neurologists out there, let’s just forget for the moment that DNA isn’t complex enough to store this kind of neurological information).  At some point, a wrench is thrown into Daly’s deviant exploits when a new co-worker, programmer Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti), is added to his game and manages to turn the crew against him.  Once the crew finds a backdoor means of communicating with the world outside the game, Daly’s world is turned upside down with a relatively satisfying ending chock-full of poetic justice, as his digitized, enslaved crew members manage to escape while he becomes trapped inside his own game as it’s being shutdown and destroyed.

Daly stuck

This episode is rife with a number of moral issues that build on one another, all deeply coupled with the ability to engineer a simulated reality (perceptual augmentation).  Virtual worlds carry a level of freedom that just isn’t possible in the real world, where one can behave in countless ways with little or no consequence, whether acting with beneficence or utter malice.  One can violate physical laws as well as prescriptive laws, opening up a new world of possibilities that are free to evolve without the feedback of social norms, legal statutes, and law enforcement.

People have long known about various ways of escaping social and legal norms through fiction and game playing, where one can imagine they are somebody else, living in a different time and place, and behave in ways they’d never even think of doing in the real world.

But what happens when they’re finished with the game and go back to the real world with all its consequences, social norms and expectations?  Doesn’t it seem likely that at least some of the behaviors cultivated in the virtual world will begin to rear their ugly heads in the real world?  One can plausibly argue that violent game playing is simply a form of psychological sublimation, where we release many of our irrational and violent impulses in a way that’s more or less socially acceptable.  But there’s also bound to be a difference between playing a very abstract game involving violence or murder, such as the classic board-game Clue, and playing a virtual reality game where your perceptions are as realistic as can be and you choose to murder some other character in cold blood.

Clearly in this episode, Daly was using the simulated reality as a means of releasing his anger and frustration, by taking it out on reproductions of his own co-workers.  And while a simulated experiential alternative could be healthy in some cases, in terms of its therapeutic benefit and better control over the consequences of the simulated interaction, we can see that Daly took advantage of his creative freedom, and wielded it to effectively fashion a parallel universe where he was free to become a psychopath.

It would already be troubling enough if Daly behaved as he did to virtual characters that were not actually conscious, because it would still show Daly pretending that they are conscious; a man who wants them to be conscious.  But the fact that Daly knows they are conscious makes him that much more sadistic.  He is effectively in the position of a god, given his powers over the simulated world and every conscious being trapped within it, and he has used these powers to generate a living hell (thereby also illustrating the technology’s potential to, perhaps one day, generate a living heaven).  But unlike the hell we hear about in myths and religious fables, this is an actual hell, where a person can suffer the worst fates imaginable (it is in fact only limited by the programmer’s imagination) such as experiencing the feeling of suffocation, yet unable to die and thus with no end in sight.  And since time is relative, in this case based on the ratio of real time to simulated time (or the ratio between one simulated time and another), a character consciously suffering in the game could feel as if they’ve been suffering for months, when the god-like player has only felt several seconds pass.  We’ve never had to morally evaluate these kinds of situations before, and we’re getting to a point where it’ll be imperative for us to do so.

Someday, it’s very likely that we’ll be able to create an artificial form of intelligence that is conscious, and it’s up to us to initiate and maintain a public conversation that addresses how our ethical and moral systems will need to accommodate new forms of conscious moral agents.

Jude Law, Haley Joel Osment, Brendan Gleeson, and Brian Turk in Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

We’ll also need to figure out how to incorporate a potentially superhuman level of consciousness into our moral frameworks, since these frameworks often have an internal hierarchy that is largely based on the degree or level of consciousness that we ascribe to other individuals and to other animals.  If we give moral preference to a dog over a worm, and preference to a human over a dog (for example), then where would a being with superhuman consciousness fit within that framework?  Most people certainly wouldn’t want these beings to be treated as gods, but we shouldn’t want to treat them like slaves either.  If nothing else, they’ll need to be treated like people.

Technologies will almost always have that dual potential, where they can be used for achieving truly admirable goals and to enhance human well being, or used to dominate others and to exacerbate human suffering.  So we need to ask ourselves, given a future world where we have the capacity to make any simulated reality we desire, what kind of world do we want?  What kind of world should we want?  And what kind of person do you want to be in that world?  Answering these questions should say a lot about our moral qualities, serving as a kind of window into the soul of each and every one of us.

Advertisements

“Black Mirror” Reflections: Playtest (S3, E2)

Cooper

Black Mirror, the British science-fiction anthology series created by Charlie Brooker, does a pretty good job experimenting with a number of illuminating concepts that highlight how modern culture is becoming increasingly shaped by (and vulnerable to) various technological advances and changes.  I’ve been interested in a number of these concepts for many years now, not least because of the many important philosophical implications (including a number of moral issues) that they point to.  I’ve decided to start a blog post series that will explore the contents of these episodes.  My intention with this blog post series, which I’m calling “Black Mirror” Reflections, will be to highlight some of my own takeaways from some of my favorite episodes.

I’d like to begin with season 2, episode 3, “Playtest”.  I’m just going to give a brief summary here as you can read the full episode summary in the link provided above.  In this episode, Cooper (Wyatt Russell) decides to travel around the world, presumably as a means of dealing with the recent death of his father, who died from early-onset Alzheimer’s.  After finding his way to London, his last destination before planning to return home to America, he runs into a problem with his credit card and bank account where he can’t access the money he needs to buy his plane ticket.

While he waits for his bank to fix the problem with his account, Cooper decides to earn some cash using an “Oddjobs” app, which provides him with a number of short-term job listings in the area, eventually leading him to “SaitoGemu,” a video game company looking for game testers to try a new kind of personalized horror game involving a (seemingly) minimally invasive brain implant procedure.  He briefly hesitates but, desperate for money and reasonably confident in its safety, he eventually consents to the procedure whereby the implant is intended to wire itself into the gamer’s brain, resulting in a form of perceptual augmentation and a semi-illusory reality.

cooper-mad

The implant is designed to (among other things) scan your memories and learn what your worst fears are, in order to integrate these into the augmented perceptions, producing a truly individualized, and maximally frightening horror game experience.  Needless to say, at some point Cooper begins to lose track of what’s real and what’s illusory, and due to a malfunction, he’s unable to exit the game and he ends up going mad and eventually dying as a result of the implant unpredictably overtaking (and effectively frying) his brain.

nanobots in brain

There are a lot of interesting conceptual threads in this story, and the idea of perceptual augmentation is a particularly interesting theme that finds it’s way into a number of other Black Mirror episodes.  While holographic and VR-headset gaming technologies can produce their own form of augmented reality, perceptual augmentation carried out on a neurological level isn’t even in the same ballpark, having qualitative features that are far more advanced and which are more akin to those found in the Wachowski’s The Matrix trilogy or James Cameron’s Total Recall.  Once the user is unable to distinguish between the virtual world and the external reality, with the simulator having effectively passed a kind of graphical version of the Turing Test, then one’s previous notion of reality is effectively shattered.  To me, this technological idea is one of the most awe-inspiring (yet sobering) ideas within the Black Mirror series.

The inability to discriminate between the two worlds means that both worlds are, for all practical purposes, equally “real” to the person experiencing them.  And the fact that one simulationcan’t tell the difference between such worlds ought to give a person pause to re-evaluate what it even means for something to be real.  If you doubt this, then just imagine if you were to find out one day that your entire life has really been the result of a computer simulation, created and fabricated by some superior intelligence living in a layer of reality above your own (we might even think of this being as a “god”).  Would this realization suddenly make your remembered experiences imaginary and meaningless?  Or would your experiences remain just as “real” as they’ve always been, even if they now have to be reinterpreted within a context that grounds them in another layer of reality?

To answer this question honestly, we ought to first realize that we’re likely fully confident that what we’re experiencing right now is reality, is real, is authentic, and is meaningful (just as Cooper was at some point in his gaming “adventure”).  And this seems to be at least a partial basis for how we define what is real, and how we differentiate the most vivid and qualitatively rich experiences from those we might call imaginary, illusory, or superficial.  If what we call reality is really just a set of perceptions, encompassing every conscious experience from the merely quotidian to those we deem to be extraordinary, would we really be justified in dismissing all of these experiences and their value to us if we were to discover that there’s a higher layer of reality, residing above the only reality we’ve ever known?

For millennia, humans have pondered over whether or not the world is “really” the way we see it, with perhaps the most rigorous examination of this metaphysical question undertaken by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, with his dichotomy of the phenomenon and the noumenon (i.e. the way we see the world or something in the world versus the way the world or thing “really is” in itself, independent of our perception).  Even if we assume the noumenon exists, we can never know anything about the thing in itself, by our being fundamentally limited by our own perceptual categories and the way we subjectively interpret the world.  Similarly, we can never know for certain whether or not we’re in a simulation.

Looking at the situation through this lens, we can then liken the question of how to (re)define reality within the context of a simulation with the question of how to (re)define reality within the context of a world as it really is in itself, independent of our perception.  Both the possibility of our being in a simulation and the possibility of our perceptions stemming from an unknowable noumenal world could be true (and would likely be unfalsifiable), and yet we still manage to use and maintain a relatively robust conception and understanding of reality.  This leads me to conclude that reality is ultimately defined by pragmatic considerations (mostly those pertaining to our ability to make successful predictions and achieve our goals), and thus the possibility of our one day learning about a new, higher level of reality should merely add to our existing conception of reality, rather than completely negating it, even if it turns out to be incomplete.

Another interesting concept in this episode involves the basic design of the individualized horror game itself, where a computer can read your thoughts and memories, and then surmise what your worst fears are.  This is a technological feat that is possible in principle, and one with far-reaching implications that concern our privacy, safety, and autonomy.  Just imagine if such a power were unleashed by corporations, or mind-readingthe governments owned by those corporations, to acquire whatever information they wanted from your mind, to find out how to most easily manipulate you in terms of what you buy, who you vote for, what you generally care about, or what you do any and every day of your life.  The Orwellian possibilities are endless.

Marketing firms (both corporatocratic and political) have already been making use of discoveries in psychology and neuroscience, finding new ways to more thoroughly exploit our cognitive biases to get us to believe and desire whatever will benefit them most.  Adding to this the future ability to read our thoughts and manipulate our perceptions (even if this is first implemented as a seemingly innocuous video game), this will establish a new means of mass surveillance, where we can each become a potential “camera” watching one another (a theme also highlighted in BM, S4E3: Crocodile), while simultaneously exposing our most private of thoughts, and transmitting them to some centralized database.  Once we reach these technological heights (it’s not a matter of if but when), depending on how it’s employed, we may find ourselves no longer having the freedom to lie or to keep a secret, nor the freedom of having any mental privacy whatsoever.

To be fair, we should realize that there are likely to be undeniable benefits in our acquiring these capacities (perceptual augmentation and mind-reading), such as making virtual paradises with minimal resources, finding new ways of treating phobias, PTSD, brain to cloudand other pathologies; giving us the power of telepathy and superhuman intelligence by connecting our brains to the cloud, giving us the ability to design error-proof lie detectors and other vast enhancements in maximizing personal security and reducing crime.  But there are also likely to be enormous losses in personal autonomy, as our available “choices” are increasingly produced and constrained by automated algorithms; there are likely to be losses in privacy, and increasing difficulties in ascertaining what is true and what isn’t, since our minds will be vulnerable to artificially generated perceptions created by entities and institutions that want to deceive us.

Although we’ll constantly need to be on the lookout for these kinds of potential dangers as they arise, in the end, we may find ourselves inadvertently allowing these technologies to creep into our lives, one consumer product at a time.