Capturing a Mind

When the Netflix series Black Mirror began in 2011, I watched a few episodes. Recently, I “binge-watched” more to catch up. If you’re not familiar with the series, each episode is about technology, and how people must deal with it when it goes awry. For the most part, the technology featured in the series doesn’t exist…yet.

One episode from 2016, Nosedive, is almost too close for comfort. As people interact, they give each other ratings much like giving an Uber driver or passenger a rating today. A person’s rating determines how others in society treat them and the opportunities that they have. Once a rating drops too low, it’s almost impossible to climb back up. The characters accept that whole situation as normal, and it is similar to how we have accepted the intrusion to our privacy from social media like Facebook today.

Since I was watching several episodes in one weekend, I noticed a theme: the ability to copy a person’s mind into a “cookie” that can interact with other people. In each case, the copy thought they were the real thing. In one episode, a scientist took a cookie from a convict as he was executed. The scientist then placed the cookie in a museum where tourists could execute the “man” over and over without eliminating him. This was terrible torture as he could feel the pain and agony each time.

In another case, a husband had the cookie of his comatose wife implanted into him. This allowed her to see and feel everything he experienced which was great for interacting with their son. You can probably imagine the problems that came up as the husband tried to live his life with this implant, and the husband eventually agreed to place her into a toy that their son soon abandoned. By the way, she ended up in the same museum as the convict.

Police used a cookie to extract a confession in one episode, and a software developer punished his co-workers by putting copies of them into a video game of his favourite TV show.

In each case, the real humans didn’t care much about the rights or experiences of the cookies, and the ethical and legal questions come up quite often. Is it legal to terminate a copy of a mind? Is it ethical to put a copy on pause or give it nothing to do for several months?

Even though this series is science fiction, I wonder how far away we are from achieving some of the technology featured. Capturing an entire mind does seem far off, but many things we accept today were science fiction not too long ago.

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