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Interview: 'Black Mirror' creator Charlie Brooker on the rise of AI and disinformation.

Interview: 'Black Mirror' creator Charlie Brooker on the rise of AI and disinformation.

Whom better to headline the very first ever inaugural SXSW Sydney as a keynote speaker than 'Black Mirror' creator Charlie Brooker - a multi-disciplined creative (presenter / author / screenwriter / producer / cartoonist / former video game reviewer) that certainly knows more than a thing or two about the intersection of human complications and futuristic technology.

Coup De Main spoke to Brooker last week in Sydney about the concerns of writers and actors about the use of AI in creating TV shows and films, the spread of disinformation, and (actually) being pro-technology...

COUP DE MAIN: I'm from New Zealand, you're from England, and we're both in Australia currently for SXSW Sydney but talking over Zoom. How do I know that you're the real Charlie Brooker? What if you're a Deepfake hologram?
CHARLIE BROOKER:
You don't! I could be! It would need to be a bit more advanced than it is now to be responding in real-time completely with my voice, but other than that, I don't know... unless we end up using some kind of face ID on your phone that is constantly verifying that I am actually who I say I am. You don't really know, I suppose, I might not be. How would I know? What if I'm not me, and I don't realise that? How am I going to work that out? Maybe when I wake up in the morning, I should check that I'm me.
CDM: This is very Pinocchio: "I'm a real boy!"
CHARLIE:
Yeah, or it just sounds like a nutcase.

CDM: I've been thinking a lot lately about how it feels like society has shifted away from prioritising empathy as a way of meaningfully connecting and engaging with other humans - everyone is in their digital silos. I'd love to hear your thoughts on if you think humans are becoming less empathetic? Considering that some of the most chilling 'Black Mirror' episodes you've written show nightmare scenarios of what can happen when there's an absolute lack of empathy.
CHARLIE:
For one thing, I would challenge the premise of the question. I would challenge the notion that human beings are becoming less empathetic - I don't know that we are, and I think that actually in some ways, we're becoming more empathetic. I think there's certainly a greater awareness amongst the younger generation of other people's worldviews and other people's experiences - that's different from when I was younger. Now, where there's possibly a lack of empathy is... it's a strange thing because there's an aspect where we can lose sight of the fact that other people are real because when someone is boiled down to their online presence, they're kind of like a character in a TV show in your head in some way. It'd be very easy to rail against that person, but generally in real three-dimensional life, I don't know that people's empathy has eroded. I don't know if this is relevant to your question, but something I've often thought about is that you used to have several different personalities, right? In a way, there's guises that you'd adopt. You'd behave in one way with your friends from school, and you'd behave in a different way with your work colleagues, and a different way from with your family, and so on and so forth. There'd be five or six different groups of people in your life that you'd interact with in slightly different ways and you talk to them in different ways. The problem with our online presence is that you've got a sort of one-size-fits-all personality that you're boiling it down to, kind of like a TV personality, or a newspaper columnist, or something like that. I think that it's easy to become a performer in that set-up and be extremely strident in a way that you might not be in real life and that's why I think there's a lot of friction online. That's a rambling answer. I don't know if I actually answered your question.

CDM: When someone first told me about TikTok 6 or 7 years ago and described to me what the app was like, my very first thought was that it sounded like the 'Black Mirror' episode 'Fifteen Million Merits' come to life, with the commodification of parasocial culture. That was half a decade ago. Just a couple days ago, I saw a viral tweet where someone had mocked up an "Afterlife Mode" for Instagram, which would use AI to continue to post photo content of a user after they died. Is it more scary to think about how new technology can affect you while you're alive? Or what it might do with you after you're dead?
CHARLIE:
Oh definitely while you're still alive, because after you're dead, who gives a shit? Unless it brings me back and then tortures me eternally in a little sort of pendant that someone can wear around their neck, then definitely, I'm more worried about what it would do while I'm alive. Rather selfishly, when I'm dead, as far as I'm concerned, the universe has ceased to be. I do tend to worry a lot, obviously, because that's my job, about the way in which things could go wrong, but I am generally pro-technology. The notion of a thing that posts photographs of you after you're dead seems monumentally pointless to me - who is actually going to look at that? Maybe it could simulate other dead people to look at that and leave comments underneath it going: "Great!"

CDM: Specifically right now, it's been very weird to see in real-time, the spread of disinformation by celebrities who would usually not weigh in on the current news cycle. Are celebrities, or the media, more impactful in spreading fake news?
CHARLIE:
Well, celebrities are part of the media, aren't they? You get celebrities caught up in it, like in the UK, the band Right Said Fred from the 80s are always posting about COVID and stuff like that in a very... the spread of this sort of weaponised nonsense, I find really scary. The only way we're going to survive on this planet is by working together to solve the big problems that are already existent and will intensify. And how can you cohesively work together if half the population believes something that isn't true? I don't know how you bridge that divide. The thought that the weaponised fiction of AI generated imagery or news is about to completely swamp us, I find that chilling and terrifying, and I don't really know what we can do about it. Different wings of the media have always had their own biases and their own worldview, and that has tended to be what they would selectively present, rather than just sort of outputting lies. I find the whole topic quite chilling.

CDM: How would you explain the concerns of writers and actors about the use of AI in creating TV shows and films, to the average person who might not understand much about why the strikes have been happening this year?
CHARLIE:
I'd direct them to the 'Black Mirror' episode, 'Joan Is Awful', that's what I do. I'd say: "Watch that - and also, can you watch it, and then watch it again? And then could you mark it as five stars or whatever, and boost my numbers, please?" For writers, I think the concern is less that TV and movie execs are going to start using it to generate a script and more that they will use it to generate a derivative outline of a story that isn't very good that they then hire cheaply, a human writer to sort of knock it into shape, while they are retaining the intellectual property of what they've asked this thing to come up with. At the moment, really all it can do, in my opinion, is pass itself off as something in a fairly bland and not that convincing way, in terms of creative work. And even with the amazing AI generated artwork you see from things like MidJourney, there is a slightly generic quality. It's almost too slick a lot of the time. But obviously, that's going to be ironed out. And I can see its value with things like ChatGPT, I can see the value to a writer in terms of brainstorming and that kind of thing - using it like a conversational Google, where you can sort of ask questions and bounce things back and forth. But as far as I can see, it's not as mad as real people are. So therefore, I don't know that we can ever get that invested in its output. We're interested in actors as people - I'd like to think that we wouldn't want to go and see a movie, where it's the late Jimmy Stewart or something, and we know, it's not really him. It's a sort of Avatar. But obviously, for actors, that's a concern that you could either find yourself doing things you didn't want to do because somebody's generated sort of fake footage, or if you're a young up-and-coming actor, you might be up against George Clooney forever if they keep churning out movies with George Clooney in it with a sort of AI generated George Clooney - I can see that that's a worry. There are so many complex issues involved. We've used virtual people for years in special effects of crowd scenes - there were quite a lot in 'Titanic', which was like 22 years ago or something, but going forward, it's interesting that it's become so timely, we just need proper agreements signed that it's not going to be exploited. That was a rambling answer.

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