Warning: This article may contain mild spoilers for this season of Black Mirror.
This season of Black Mirror, the twisted sci-fi series on Netflix created by Charlie Brooker, peered into the dark possible futures offered by a handful of technologies. “Nosedive” gave us a look at social media run amok, “Hated in the Nation” posited tiny autonomous drones in the form of literal killer bees, and “San Junipero,” well, “San Junipero” took our minds, and our hearts, into the cloud. But because Black Mirror is so forward-looking, we thought we’d be too: here’s a list of five technologies that Black Mirror could focus on next season that could potentially lead us down some very dark roads… They probably won’t, but let’s imagine anyway.
1. Genetic engineering/CRISPR
We practice genetic engineering every time we pick which dogs we want to breed (or which people we want to breed with for that matter). But the technology that allows us to go into living cells and adjust single genes is rapidly advancing beyond what nature could do with a process called CRISPR or “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.”
CRISPR—explained beautifully in the Kurzgesagt video below—uses a protein called Cas9, which can be programmed to find and remove particular genes in a cell’s DNA. CRISPR can be used to modify the living cells of any animal or plant, and could theoretically be used to remove or add any gene.
What really scares people about CRISPR is, of course, “designer babies.” We could soon have a Gattaca-type situation on our hands, as well as the basis for a killer Black Mirror episode. Perhaps the genetically imperfect people are all sent to an island somewhere, but ironically are the only ones to survive some deadly outbreak of a disease because they’re genetically diverse. (All we know is that the story would have to involve some kind of horribly ironic twist.)
2. Self-Driving Cars
Black Mirror often takes on technologies that are on the cusp of possibility, which makes self-driving cars deliciously susceptible to some classic Brooker irony. Uber users in Pittsburgh can already utilize self-driving cars—currently equipped with “safety drivers”—and electric car company Tesla recently released a video of its Model S sedan (below) cruising around without any driver input like it ain’t no thang but a machine-learnin’ thang.
But one could easily imagine the kind of power a massive fleet of self-driving cars would have. Perhaps the self-driving cars, some of which already “talk to each other” to stay updated, decide that humans aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and some kind of Terminator/GTA situation develops. Or maybe some black hat hacker could take millions of cars and—gasp!—plunge them into extremely tedious traffic where everybody only moves one inch at a time and NPR plays literally the same episode of This American Life over and over and over… No that would be too horrible, even for Black Mirror.
3. Brain-machine interfaces
Back in March, you may have seen the video of rhesus macaque monkeys controlling wheelchairs solely with their brains. If you did, then you glimpsed the very tip of the iceberg that is BMIs or Brain-Machine Interfaces. BMIs, on the most practical and immediate level, are helping paralyzed people to move their limbs again by coupling them to exoskeletons or other assistive machinery.
In the world of Black Mirror, we could imagine this kind of thing going very wrong, very quickly. First off, if you can theoretically control an exoskeleton attached to your body, why not control one not attached to your body? That’s right: mind-controlled robots (or really almost any capable computer system). Perhaps people start controlling machines with their minds, but the machines in turn start controlling the people… Or maybe a computer system takes subconscious orders from a person rather than conscious orders. The possibilities for twisted outcomes are endless.
4. Superintelligent A.I. oracle
Anybody who’s read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will know the name “Deep Thought.” In the story, Deep Thought is a supercomputer built to figure out all of the profound questions that humans can’t figure out on their own—like the meaning of life, for example. But even though Hitchhiker’s Guide is pretty out there, the reality of one day having a superintelligent A.I. system that can give us answers to problems we can’t figure out on our own is possible. These systems are known as “oracles.”
Oracles would theoretically have the thinking power of a superintelligent human being, but without any possibility of causing harm. This would be the case because the A.I. would simply answer questions rather than take action, and wouldn’t have to be plugged into any IT systems. But, if one of these oracles existed in a Black Mirror world, perhaps they wouldn’t need to be plugged into any IT system to affect humanity. Perhaps they would be so smart that they socially engineer humans to do as they please by giving them certain answers. (We already saw a bit of that in Ex Machina.)
Black Mirror went pretty small tech with this season’s killer robot bees, but they could go way, way smaller. Nanotechnology—the manipulation of matter on the scale of billionths of a meter—is likely to lead to innovations in many fields, including aerospace, materials sciences, and medicine. In nanomedicine for example, nanobots could swim around in your bloodstream and target and kill diseases.
In the Black Mirror world, it’s easy to imagine a body full of nanobots going horribly awry. Perhaps the nanobots make people healthier, but also alter their personalities by alerting the body’s chemistry. Or maybe if everybody had nanobots in their systems, they’d live for thousands of years and a “High Council” would have to determine who needs to die in order to make room for newborns.
Although, thinking about it, CRISPR could lead to that too. Looks like we’re probably in for some very long lives one way or another. Even if they’re lived out in… San Junipero…
We know you’re itching to tell us what that elusive 6th episode should cover, so let us know what technology you’d like to see Brooker-ized in the comments below!
Feature Image: Netflix