“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.

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“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.

CGI, Movies and Truth…

After watching Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I liked, though not nearly as much as the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), it got me thinking more about something I hadn’t thought about since the most recent presidential election.  As I watched Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, both characters made possible in large part thanks to CGI (as well as the help of actors Ingvild Deila and Guy Henry), I realized that although this is still a long way away, it is inevitable that (barring a nuclear world war or some other catastrophe that kills us all or sets us back to a pre-industrialized age) the pace of this technology will eventually lead to CGI products that are completely indistinguishable from reality.

This means that eventually, the “fake news” issue that many have been making a lot of noise about as of late, will one day take a new and ugly turn for the worse.  Not only is video and graphic technology accelerating at a fairly rapid pace to exacerbate this problem, but similar concerns are also arising as a result of voice editing software.  By simply gathering several seconds of sample audio from a person of interest, various forms of software are getting better and better at synthesizing their speech in order to mimic them — putting whatever words into “their” mouths that one so desires.

The irony here is that this means that despite the fact that we are going to continue becoming more and more globally interconnected, technologically advanced, and gain more global knowledge, it seems that we will eventually reach a point where each individual becomes less and less able to know what is true and what isn’t in all the places that you are electronically connected to.  One reason for this is that, as per the opening reference to Rogue One, it will become increasingly difficult to judge the veracity of videos that go viral on the internet and/or through news outlets.  We can imagine seeing a video (or many series of videos) released on the news and throughout the internet containing shocking events with real world leaders or other famous people, places, and so forth, events that could possibly start a civil or world war, alter one’s vote, or otherwise — but with the caveat that these events are entirely manufactured by some Machiavellian warmonger or power seeking elite.

Pragmatically speaking, we must still live our lives trusting what we see in proportion to the evidence we have, thus believing ordinary claims with a higher degree of confidence than extraordinary ones.  We will still need to hold to the general rule of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence in order to meet their burden of proof.  But it will become more difficult to trust certain forms of evidence (including in a court of law), so we’ll have to take that into consideration so that actions that result in more catastrophic consequences (if your assumptions/information turn out to be based on false evidence) require a higher burden of proof — once we are able to successfully pass some kind of graphics Touring Test.

This is by no means an endorsement for conspiracy theories generally nor any other anti-intellectual or dogmatic non-sense. We don’t want people to start doubting everything they see nor to start doubting everything they don’t WANT to see (which would be a proverbial buffet for our cognitive biases and the conspiracy theorists that make use of these epistemological flaws regularly), we still need to take this dynamic technological factor into account to maintain a world view based on proper Bayesian reasoning.

On the brighter side of things, we are going to get to enjoy much of what the new CGI capabilities will bring to us, because movies and all visual entertainment are going to be revolutionarily changed forever in many ways that will be worth celebrating, including our use of virtual reality generally (many various forms that we do and will continue to consciously and rationally desire). We just need to pay attention and exercise some careful moral deliberation as we develop these technologies. Our brains simply didn’t evolve to easily avoid being duped by artificial realities like the ones we’re developing (we already get duped far too often within our actual reality), so we need to engineer our path forward in a way that will better safeguard us from our own cognitive biases so we can maximize our well being once this genie is out of the bottle.

Virtual Reality & Its Moral Implications

There’s a lot to be said about virtual reality (VR) in terms of our current technological capabilities, our likely prospects for future advancements, and the vast amount of utility that we gain from it.  But, as it is with all other innovations, with great power comes great responsibility.

While there are several types of VR interfaces on the market, used for video gaming or various forms of life simulation, they do have at least one commonality, namely the explicit goal of attempting to convince the user that what they are experiencing is in fact real in at least some sense.  This raises a number of ethical concerns.  While we can’t deny the fact that even reading books and watching movies influences our behavior to some degree, VR is bound to influence our behavior much more readily because of the sheer richness of the qualia and the brain’s inability to distinguish significant differences between a virtual reality and our natural one.  Since the behavioral conditioning schema that our brain employs has evolved to be well adapted to our natural reality, any virtual variety that increasingly approximates it is bound to increasingly affect our behavior.  So we need to be concerned with VR in terms of how it can affect our beliefs, our biases, and our moral inclinations and other behaviors.

One concern with VR is the desensitization to, or normalization of, violence and other undesirable or immoral behaviors.  Many video games have been criticized over the years for this very reason, with the claim that they promote similar behaviors in the users of those games (most especially younger users with more impressionable minds).  These claims have been significantly validated by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, where they have both taken firm stances against children and teens playing violent video games, as a result of the accumulated research and meta studies showing a strong link between violent video gaming and increased aggression, anti-social behavior, and sharp decreases in moral engagement and empathy.

Thus, the increasingly realistic nature of VR and the ever-consistent increase in the capacities one has at their disposal within such a virtual space, is bound to exacerbate these types of problems.  If people are able to simulate rape or pedophilia among other morally reprehensible actions and social taboos, will they too become more susceptible to actually engaging in these behaviors once they leave the virtual space and re-enter the real world?  Even if they don’t increase their susceptibility to perform those behaviors, what does such a virtual escapade do to that person’s moral character?  Are they more likely to condone those behaviors (even if they don’t participate in them directly), or to condone other behaviors that have some kind of moral relevance or cognitive overlap with one another?

On the flip side, what if it was possible to use VR as a therapeutic tool to help cure pedophilia or other behavioral problems?  What if one was able to simulate rape, pedophilia or otherwise to reduce their chances of performing those acts in the real world?  Hardly anyone would argue that a virtual rape or molestation is anywhere near as abhorrent or consequential as real instances of such crimes would be, horrific crimes made against real human beings.  While this may only apply to a small number of people, it is at least plausible that such a therapeutic utility would make the world a better place if it prevented an actual rape or other crime from taking place.  If certain people have hard-wired impulses that would normally ruin their lives or the lives of others if left unchecked, then it would be prudent if not morally obligatory to do what we can to prevent such harms from taking place.  So even though this technology could make the otherwise healthy user begin to engage in bad behaviors, it could also be used as an outlet of expression for those already afflicted with similar impulses.  Just as they’ve used VR to help cure anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD, and other pathologies, by exposing people to various stimuli that help them to overcome their ills, so too may VR possibly provide a cure for other types of mental illnesses and aggressive predispositions such as those related to murder, sexual assault, etc.

Whether VR is used as an outlet for certain behaviors to prevent them from actually happening in the real world, or as a means of curing a person from those immoral inclinations (where the long term goal is to eventually no longer need any VR treatment at all), there are a few paths that could show some promising results to decrease crime and so forth.  But, beyond therapeutic uses, we need to be careful about how these technologies are used generally and how that usage will increasingly affect our moral inclinations.

If society chose to implement some kind of prohibition to limit the types of things people could do in these virtual spaces, that may be of some use, but beyond the fact that this kind of prohibition would likely be difficult to enforce, it would also be a form of selective prohibition that may not be justified to implement.  If one chose to prohibit simulated rape and pedophilia (for example), but not prohibit murder or other forms of assault and violence, then what would justify such a selective prohibition?  We can’t simply rely on an intuition that the former simulated behaviors are somehow more repugnant than the latter (and besides, many would say that murder is just as bad if not worse anyway).  It seems that instead we need to better assess the consequences of each type of simulated behavior on our behavioral conditioning to see if at least some simulated activities should be prohibited while allowing others to persist unregulated.  On the other hand, if prohibiting this kind of activity is not practical or if it can only be implemented by infringing on certain liberties that we have good reasons to protect, then we need to think about some counter-strategies to either better inform people about these kinds of dangers and/or to make other VR products that help to encourage the right kinds of behaviors.

I can’t think of a more valuable use for VR than to help us cultivate moral virtues and other behaviors that are conducive to our well-being and to our living a more fulfilled life.  Anything from reducing our prejudices and biases through exposure to various simulated “out-groups” (for example), to modifying our moral character in more profound ways through artificial realities that can encourage the user to help others in need and to develop habits and inclinations that are morally praiseworthy.  We can even use this technology (and have already to some degree) to work out various moral dilemmas and our psychological response to them without anybody actually dying or getting physically hurt.  Overall, VR certainly holds a lot of promise, but it also poses a lot of psychological danger, thus making it incumbent upon us to talk more about these technologies as they continue to develop.