Black Mirror Feels Closer Than Ever
And AI’s dear children are the reason.
Fresh off the press is the celebrated TIME AI 100 list. Among the tech titans stands Charlie Brooker, the man who offered a different point of view on the technologies being built in Silicon Valley. The 52-year-old writer extraordinaire is often credited for his uncanny scripted Netflix series ‘Black Mirror’. Since its UK premiere in 2011, Brooker has consistently shattered the rose-tinted glasses through which we’ve long-adored tech — when Meta was Facebook and X was Twitter. He has made us question: What if all this machine circus isn’t a blessing, but a curse?
Time and again since Brooker’s worst-case scenario lens hit the air, he has managed to correctly predict the future in horrible ways. The debut episode of the latest season glances at how people might have to contend with managing their digital alter egos. The phenomenon went on to become the figurehead of the Hollywood writers’ strike — sparked by the anxiety around the AI’s dear child ChatGPT taking away the writers’ livelihoods.
The striking writers are grappling with another pressing issue: How do we regulate these AI-generated doppelgängers?
Coming back to Black Mirror, Season 6, Episode 1 introduces us to Joan, a tech exec whose life becomes a biographical drama on a Netflix-ish platform named Streamberry, portrayed by none other than Salma Hayek. While the concept of a celebrity living in your shoes might sound enticing, it’s anything but that for Joan. Every day, she’s haunted by her own and reel-Hayek’s actions, exposing her daily shenanigans and regrettable choices.
Things spiral downwards from there when she realises that the Hayek playing Joan on screen is an AI-generated replica of the actress who has sold the rights to use her face to the company behind the show-about-the-show.
Enter Soul Machines, a company that could transform this dystopia into reality. A 2021 report by The Verge revealed that this classic Black Mirror company, co-founded by Greg Cross, primarily creates harmless customer service avatars.
Much like Hayek in Brooker’s Netflix universe, Soul Machines has digitised NBA and K-pop icons, according to their website. The Information has even reported that “many stars and agents are quietly taking meetings with AI companies to explore their options”. While the company opens up new avenues for monetising celebrity likenesses, it also exposes them to the risk of damaging their brand.
Echoes of the futuristic past
SAG-AFTRA, the union representing over 160,000 actors, warns that generative AI and technologies alike could leave “principal performers and background actors vulnerable to having most of their work replaced by digital replicas”.
The wishful fantasy of hyper-personalised content tailored to individual tastes, generated by AI is not distant. Superstar Jennifer Lopez’s digital twin is already campaigning for cruise ads by mimicking her voice and appearance. The campaign boosted bookings at the same time stirring concerns about misuse. While JLo’s team has taken precautionary measures, society has been using deepfakes awfully.
Often, Black Mirror’s storylines have seemed to foreshadow some of the darker developments in the Bay Area. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, there’ll be a Joan reading an article on AIM about an episode titled “Joan Is Awful”, only for it to become a scene “Joan Is Awful” — reflecting the world’s obsession with being digitally real.