Charlie Brooker’s Ideas About the Future of AI Sound Like a ‘Black Mirror’ Episode

An image of charlie brooker at sxsw sydney speaking about AI

Charlie Brooker has a somewhat deserved reputation as the ‘everything is shit and technology will kill us’ guy. It’s not that he doesn’t think that, but that’s not the whole story.

Brooker has said previously that the show that brought him international fame and success, Black Mirror, is not the ‘technology is bad’ show that so many simplistically interpret it as but the ‘human beings have a capacity for evil that technology provides endless opportunities for’… show.

The clue is very much in the name. The reflection of your own face in a switched-off TV or phone is the titular black mirror. It’s you, darkly refracted through technology, that the show explores.

The British writer and director is in town to speak at the inaugural South By South West Sydney where artificial intelligence is far and away the hottest subject of debate. While SXSW does have its fair share of tech bros talking up the AI revolution, it also has an equal measure of those emphasising the need to tread carefully.

When we sat down for an interview with him, Brooker told us that he’s not here to “give the counternarrative” to AI as a whole but that he is concerned about the fact that those in power are already scheming to use it to supplant humans – creatives in particular, whose time appears limited. Exactly just how limited though is something even he can’t predict.

“With creatives, it’s tricky because, in terms of the complexity of an image [AI] can spit out, emulating things, simulating things, we’re almost there, aren’t we?” Brooker told The Latch.

He notes the pope in a puffer jacket picture that did the rounds on social media earlier this year did fool him “on first glance” but that, at present, generative AI is a bit like three children in a trench coat trying to get into an adult film at the cinema.

“It’s sort of trying to pass itself off as true creative output,” Brooker said.

An AI image of the pope wearing a puffer jacket - something that tricked black mirror creator charlie brooker
Image: The AI-generated image that appeared to trick thousands of people online. Since the photo went viral in March, generative AI has become even better still.

Like most artists and people who make a living bearing their souls for public enjoyment, Brooker appeals to the argument that there is something inherent in humanity that the machines will never be able to replicate. However, he seems to be clinging to that particular belief very lightly.

“I’d like to think that there is some sort of alchemy that human beings bring to the party that a machine or a bit of software isn’t going to be able to emulate… but I could well be wrong”.

“I’d like to hope that people will end up going, ‘Oh, this feels like it was made by a machine, I’m not really interested in watching this’. I don’t know though. I honestly don’t know.”

Brooker joined Writer’s Guild staff on the picket line during the recent strikes which were, in part, motivated by the need for protections in the industry over the use of AI. While an agreement was reached with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in September, it seems a bit like trying to hold back a tsunami with an umbrella. He notes that, for the younger generations, a rapid narrowing of career options is inevitable.

“I’ve got two kids and the nine-year-old is good at drawing,” Brooker said.

“He was doodling something and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really good’. And he got all excited and said ‘I’m gonna get a sketchbook and I’m gonna do loads of drawings!’.

“In the back of my head, the thought came in, ‘Yeah, well, good f**king luck, monetising that career path, mate’.”

Ominously, before he rose through the ranks to become one of the world’s most prescient writers and directors, Brooker himself got his start as a cartoonist.

That said, technology has always drifted in the no-man’s land between brutally exploitative capitalism and the noble pursuits of human creativity. Every adaptation has led to job losses, whether that be lamplighters or mechanical typesetters.

AI might feel different, owing to its speed, pervasiveness, and uncanny replication of human activity but whether or not it actually is that different from, say, the invention of the camera or the mobile phone, isn’t clear.

“The impressive AI imagery that you see at the moment, a human being had to sit down and think of it and type it in and tell it what to do,” Brooker said.

“It’s not like it came up with it and said, ‘I’m gonna do the pope in a puffer jacket, this will make everyone laugh’.”

“In which case, what’s the difference between that and using, you know, a Photoshop tool? It’s not a huge shift.”

Of course, for someone who came up with the idea that Netflix will soon be harvesting all of our data to create instant, bespoke content that cruelly turns the drama of our daily lives into entertainment for others, he perceives a darker future too.

“In 10 years’ time, instead of sitting down to watch TV, you might put on an Oculus Meta Quest 27 headset and experience a generative AI three-dimensional motion picture that’s just constantly writing itself based on what your thoughts are and what your pulse rate is doing,” he theorised.

“Well, at that point, none of us creatives really have any sort of role to play.

“We’ll end up just being used for batteries to power the system that’s keeping us constantly entertained. Basically what I’m describing is The Matrix.

“[AI] is just the end result of a logical process that has been going on since we invented the wheel, basically. It’s just whether we’re reaching the endgame of our usefulness as worker drones”.

If there are to be vast job losses and mass layoffs, with AI hyper-charging long-running inequalities and returning us all to serfdom, many speculate that we’re going to need a universal basic income to avoid the complete collapse of society and, perhaps more importantly for the three male trillionaires left in charge, the economy.

Brooker is however uncertain that UBI, as popular as the idea is for solving the techpocalypse, will not simply present us with alternative problems that are just as pressing.

“I would have thought we’d have to have universal basic income,” he said.

“But then we’ll also need, as well as financially making sure that people can actually live in our society, to be able to find meaningful endeavour and meaningful work.

“That is quite hard to see. Maybe we’ll end up like back in Medieval times, tilling the fields to feel like we’re doing something useful, harvesting turnips, and trying not to die of scurvy”.

In many ways, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the creator of what is objectively one of the bleakest shows on TV doesn’t have the most upbeat perception of our future. I ask whether it all gets too much for someone who is a self-confessed worrier.

“Sometimes, yeah,” he said.

“I put time limits on social media apps and things like that because it can get too much and you can end up just doom scrolling.

“It is healthy to unplug now and then and sort of walk away from things and go outside and breathe a bit of air and walk around and feel the grass underneath your feet and all of that”.

At least AI cannot replicate that – yet.

Related: All Students Will Be Taught How to Use AI Next Year (By Humans)

Related: AI is Being Trained Using ‘Digital Slaves’ in Developing Nations Because of Course It Is

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