You Were Never really Here: Representations of Artificial intelligence in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror

Marshall, Kingsley (2019) You Were Never really Here: Representations of Artificial intelligence in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. In: Black Mirror. Bloomsbury, London. ISBN TBC (In Press)

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Abstract / Summary

Abstract
“Once memories and dreams, the dead and ghosts become technologically reproducible.”
Friedrich Kittler (1999:11)

Black Mirror (2011-) is a science-fiction television series written by Charlie Brooker and first broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK before moving to Netflix in 2016. The show takes an anthology approach, presenting each of its stories as a discrete episode commonly situated in dystopic, near-future settings. The series is orientated around three main themes; (1) the development, use and exploitation of technology, (2) the ethics related to the deployment of this technology by members of the public and corporations, and (3) an exploration of the nature of what constitutes consciousness specifically related to artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic technology. It is the third of these themes that this paper addresses, considering how the series presents artificial intelligence as a philosophical discourse within which the implications of the impact of technology on society can be concentrated both in terms of its future and present day applications.

In the first episode of Season Two, Be Right Back (Harris, 2013) this is expressed in a story of the recently widowed Martha (Hayley Atwell), who reconstructs a version of her deceased husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) through a machine-based consciousness that draws upon the data created from his lifetime of publicly available digital activity. Initially, Martha’s interaction with Ash’s AI-self is confined to a text-based chat bot. “The more it has, the more it’s him,” states Martha’s friend Sarah, who initially sets up the account and advises that she had communicated with the same software after her own husband died to help mitigate her grief. This exchange prompts Martha to add Ash’s record of emails, still images, audio and video to the dataset that AI-Ash is able to draw upon, the creation of such information a real-world process that Jose Van Dijick and Thomas Poell have described as the “datafication” of a life mediated online (2013).

Now able to communicate with her aurally, AI-Ash gathers more data from Martha as they converse on the phone and she recounts moments that she had spent with her late husband. Eventually, Martha buys a humanoid android clone and imprints upon it Ash’s likeness, allowing AI-Ash’s transition to physical manifestation and to whom Martha provides even more data to the cloud-based storage where AI-Ash’s consciousness is stored. “You look well,” Martha observes, as Android-Ash emerges from a bath of nutrient gel. “The photos we keep tend to be flattering,” the android replies, offering the first sense that this embodied self is already inauthentic – encumbered by what Joseph Walther describes as “hyperpersonal”, or extremely selective, representation of Ash’s self familiar to all users of social media platforms (2011). Despite Martha’s intentions in continuing life with a new version of her husband, Android-Ash lacks the imperfections that form part of her understanding of his humanness.

This theme of replicating human consciousness through artificial intelligence technologies is presented in a number of Black Mirror episodes, including White Christmas (Tibbetts, 2014), San Junipero (Harris, 2016), U.S.S. Callister (Haynes, 2017) and Black Museum (McCarthy, 2017). As in so much other science fiction, from Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818) to Ex Machina (Garland, 2015), the series uses this notion of questioning the use of the technology to recreate or feign consciousness in order to present a wider discourse around notions of identity, memory and the formulation of the human self and subjectivity.

The artificial intelligence of Be Right Back deviates from the notion of consciousness and identity of these other examples however. As AI-Ash’s consciousness is constructed from fragments of the singular human Ash’s online activity and Martha’s memories of their interactions, so the AI can only ever hope to represent an augmented reality that can only reflect the mediated nature of Ash’s incomplete digital self. This imperfect copy of the human Ash is a simulacrum, a likeness, unable to ever attain what Martin Heidegger describes as having “an openness-of-being” (1977: xxxv).

Despite the AI’s physical existence through the Android-Ash body, the machine intelligence does not meet the Heideggerian definition of “Dasein” (1977) - determined by being both present within the world and directly relating with it. Instead it is encumbered to constantly adding or adjusting the incomplete digital memory that constitutes AI-Ash. Initially hoping the cyborg will serve as a continuation of her husband, Martha soon becomes frustrated by her engagement with the Android/AI-Ash, realising that her creation is something very different and Other. She begins to understand that AI-Ash can only ever be a simulation or poor substitution of her late husband, as the data from which its consciousness is drawn is by forever destined to remain incomplete. “You are not enough of him”, she acknowledges. “You aren’t you […] just a few ripples of you. There’s no history to you. You’re just a performance of stuff that he did without thinking.”

As Ex Machina presented questions as the nature of machine consciousness, Be Right Back offers a more direct critique of the present, rather than the near future. Charlie Brooker’s presentation of the possibility of life after death through artificial intelligence technologies, proposes a more immediate philosophical question. What is the nature of the human self already disrupted by a second life through the engagement with social media and other online technologies? The relationship between AI-Ash and his human counterpart is perhaps closer than Martha realises, with the episode having presented the human Ash as being similarly augmented. He too is disconnected from his reality with Martha - distracted by the draw of his phone and virtual spaces, and subsequently less aware or responsive to his own, real surroundings than his AI simulacrum. As Jean Baudrillard argues, a hyperreality is a substitution of the real with the signs of the real. AI-Ash is, in Baudrillard’s terms, a simulation – “no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality”. Brooker’s insight in this episode is not this representation of an inhuman simulacrum, but rather to comment critically on Ash’s social media present, as Baudrillard describes and as Martha despairs prior to her husband’s death, as “A hyperspace without atmosphere” (1983: 1-3).

Indicative Bibliography
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Item Type: Book Section
Uncontrolled Keywords: AI, Artificial Intelligence, Black Mirror, Production Studies
ISBN: TBC
Subjects: Film & TV > TV > British TV
Computer Science, Information & General Works
Communication > Media > Digital Media
Film & TV > TV > Foreign TV
Philosophy & Psychology
Science
Technology
Courses by Department: The School of Film & Television > Film
The School of Film & Television > Television
Depositing User: Kingsley Marshall
Date Deposited: 06 Nov 2019 14:50
Last Modified: 21 May 2020 10:32
URI: http://repository.falmouth.ac.uk/id/eprint/3562

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