These two “Black Mirror” episodes explore machine learning’s potential



Machine learning has taken the technology world by storm in recent decades. Now, artificial intelligence (AI)-based programs and entities make up a considerable portion of the industry, from user convenience programs (Siri, Alexa) to robotics.


This fascinating concept, among others similar to it, is just one of many real-life trends explored, dissected, and occasionally satirized by Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror,” an anthology science fiction show examining modern tech culture through a Rod Serling-esque lense. Machine learning and AI appear as regular show themes, and while these episodes are mostly rooted in fantastical future scenarios, they are also extensions and exaggerations of actual tech developments.


Here is a quick look at how real-life machine learning concepts are implemented into two episodes of “Black Mirror:” “Be Right Back” and “Playtest.”


Human simulation via machine learning: “Be Right Back”


A young woman suddenly loses her fiance in car accident; grief-stricken and hungry for closure, she confides in a machine learning program that can absorb the personal details of an individual, via his or her web-based interactions and posts, and simulate him or her as if he or she were still alive. This scenario results in a tragic parable of human connection, examining the very definitions of life and love.


This “Black Mirror” episode, titled “Be Right Back,” may make viewers think in ways that are initially pretty uncomfortable and, in ways, unfathomable. Yet, the events of the episode play with themes that have been partially observed in real life. Relationships between artificial intelligence units and humans has become a legitimate talking point in sectors of the tech community. For instance, a Russian woman experimented with a similar re-creation AI program in 2015 after her friend was killed in a hit-and-run accident. After referencing over 8,000 lines of text messages, an interactive bot eventually came to fruition. Furthermore, Sirius Radio host Martine Rothblatt created a similar concept five years prior, building a digital lifelike bust of her late wife.


Though these bots have been met with mixed reception from users, the mere fact that they exist shows that the events of “Be Right Back,” are, in fact, technically possible in the scope of future technological implications — though the episode’s sophisticated levels of human/AI interaction may still be a far cry.


Machine learning and entertainment: “Playtest”


Perhaps one of Black Mirror’s most unsettling episodes, “Playtest,” revolves around the concept of video gaming via psychological profile. The episode’s main character, Cooper, signs up to test an intuitive new survival/horror game, which draws from players’ phobias and personal anxieties to create the simulated horrors they must overcome. Cooper is implanted with a biorobotic chip, which extracts his darkest fears and reimagines them a la Resident Evil.


This concept may seem highly futuristic, but in reality, it has been already been attempted in real life — just not to the extent observed in the show. The 2009 survival/horror game, “Silent Hill Shattered Memories,” prompts players to answer a questionnaire inspired by the “Big Five” personality test, which is used by academic psychologists during personal research. The game also observes players’ in-game tendencies, such as how they interact with in-game environments. These features are employed in an attempt to then frighten players based on their psychological traits and habits, creating a personalized gameplay experience.


Given the interesting parallels between “Playtest” and “Shattered Memories,” experiences released nearly seven years apart, one could argue that the former is not entirely out of the bounds of reality — especially as virtual reality headsets and simulation technology become increasingly prevalent. While it is unknown if biorobotic implants will ever exist in video game culture, it is safe to assume that highly personal simulation gaming will eventually reach heights eerily similar to those depicted in “Playtest.”