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MIT Professor Shows Students “Black Mirror” So They Won’t Create Dystopian Tech



The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the leading technology research centers in the world, which makes it one of the most likely places to crank out disturbing dystopian technologies that pose a risk to freedom, life, and the environment. MIT has made headlines in the past with military robots and scary AI projects, even going so far as to create a “nightmare machine,” an AI that could “creatively imagine what terrifies humans.”

The nightmare machine project brought up many comparisons to the dystopian Netflix series “Black Mirror,” which features a different story of technology tyranny or creepiness each episode, sort of a modern take on the old show “The Twilight Zone.”

Not everyone at MIT is focused on creating destructive tech with government contracts though, some of the greatest minds at the university are working against the tide to create a different type of future. Pattie Maes, the founder and director of MIT’s Fluid Interfaces research group, has started showing her students episodes of Black Mirror in hopes that they will use their knowledge to create positive technology, instead of a dystopian nightmare.

“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. 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,” Maes told The Outline.

While many groups at MIT depend on grants from the government and military for funding, Mae’s Fluid Interfaces lab takes donations from entrepreneurs who are interested in disruptive technology or “far out” ideas that may be too unconventional for other labs. For example, one of the projects involves an electronic device which was designed to “extend hypnagogic microdreams,” another project promises to achieve “human machine symbiosis” and “cognitive augmentation.”

“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. 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,” Maes said.

“I think we need optimists because just critiquing where technology is taking us is not going to make things change. 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,” she added.

If you have never seen Black Mirror, below is a spoiler reel of some of the show’s most disturbing moments:

Image: Black Mirror/Netflix.

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