The MIT Media Lab is one of the most visible parts of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — both as an imposing glass-and-metal edifice in Cambridge and as an endless source of new technologies, from Lego Mindstorms and Guitar Hero, to e-ink, touchscreens, and in-vehicle GPS. Pattie Maes, the founder and director of the lab’s influential Fluid Interfaces research group, has spent much of her career investigating artificial intelligence, cognitive augmentation, and human-computer interaction, and in recent years, she says, she’s become increasingly conscious of those technologies’ capacity for bleak unintended consequences. So, turning to a pop-culture touchstone that addresses some of those darker repercussions, this year she’s giving all her new grad students an unusual assignment: watch every episode of the dystopian science fiction show Black Mirror.
“I just think that as designers of computer technologies that will get into the hands of 2.5 billion people, that anyone who was involved in designing new services and new interfaces should really think carefully about what impact the technologies they develop will have on society and on people’s lives,” she said. “Black Mirror is of course a very negative version of how things can go wrong, but I think it’s useful for all of the students and anyone involved in the development of new digital services and systems to look at that and keep that in mind as something to avoid.”
At the Media Lab, research groups like Fluid Interfaces are largely funded by outside companies that are interested in applications that are too “far out,” according to the lab’s own description, for mainstream corporate research. In those research groups, which include prosthetist Hugh Herr’s famous Biomechatronics lab, students collaborate on ideas that can sound far-fetched — one researcher in Maes’ lab is working on an electronic device to “extend hypnagogic microdreams,” and Maes herself leads courses on “human machine symbiosis” and “cognitive augmentation.” But the lab has often produced technologies that later became ubiquitous, including the touchscreen, and Maes wants her students to take that responsibility seriously.
Black Mirror, which originally ran on the British Channel 4 before it was purchased by Netflix in 2015, envisions disastrous consequences of familiar technologies. In an episode called “Nosedive,” bad reviews on a ubiquitous social rating system can send people into a social spiral. In “The Entire History of You,” which has since been optioned by Robert Downey Jr.’s production company as a Hollywood film, a technology called a “grain” records everything people see and hear, leading to disastrous interpersonal strife.
To Maes, the show is also a valuable opportunity to spark discussions about technology’s capacity for dark repercussions — as well as subtle effects of existing tech, like phones' disruptive effects on sleep, posture, memory, creativity and attention spans. These are especially important conversations, she believes, for students who are likely to land in the upper echelons Silicon Valley development.
“I think the typical engineering education should include more types of activities and courses that teach students to think about why and whether they want to build something,” she said. “I think Facebook, for example, is the typical example of a service that is built by a lot of engineers, and I think they made a lot of mistakes and didn't think enough about all sorts of consequences of choices they made in how they implement things.”
MIT has a complicated relationship with the high tech industry, as any technical school might. Its students often spin off startups or take jobs in the tech and military-industrial complexes, but at the same time, its student body is notoriously political and prone to acts of defiance. Last year, the Media Lab instituted a $250,000 “Disobedience Award” for people challenging norms and laws.
At first, Maes’ favorite Black Mirror episodes were the ones that related the most closely to her own work in augmented reality, filter bubbles and memory — like the “grain” episode about the pitfalls of total recall, or the twist ending in the Hololens-like “Men Against Fire.” But as time has gone on, she’s started to see fresh horror in fields with which she’s had little direct interaction, like “Metalhead,” an episode about autonomous weapons gone awry.
In spite of the show’s grim outlook, though, Maes is hopeful that a new generation of engineers can learn to harness technology in responsible ways, and to correct its course when it causes harm.
“I think we need optimists, because just critiquing where technology is taking us is not going to make things change,” Maes said. “We need people who design new systems that are more aligned with people’s real, true interests and goals. We need people who will be changing the future for the better.”