The doyen of dystopia explains how he played with AI to create the latest series of Black Mirror.
Although shooting wrapped on the sixth season of Black Mirror before ChatGPT was launched last November, the show’s ever prescient creator had already toyed with Generative AI and found it wanting.
“Obviously the first thing I did was ask it to come up with a Black Mirror episode to see what it would do,” he told GQ in a pre-season interview. “What it came out with was simultaneously too generic and dull for any serious consideration. There’s a generic quality to the art that it pumps out. It’ll be undeniably perfect in five years, but at what point it’ll replace the human experience? I don’t know if that’ll ever come.”
He related the same story to The Hollywood Reporter and was even more blunt: “The first thing I did was type ‘generate Black Mirror episode’ and it comes up with something that, at first glance, reads plausibly, but on second glance, is shit.”
With this latest series, the first since the pandemic, Brooker wanted to throw out some of the core assumptions of what a Black Mirror episode is.
“When we started doing the show, there weren’t many dystopian sci-fi shows around,” he relates in the programme’s production notes. “These days, you can’t hurl a smartphone across a room without hitting three dystopian sci-fi shows.”
There’s been a conscious effort to rip up the rule book, keep it unpredictable for viewers, and maybe expand its remit.
“It allows us to disorientate the audience. Also, it meant I didn’t have to think, ‘What’s the episode of Black Mirror about NFTs,’ which is an idea that depressed me greatly.”
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When Black Mirror isn’t a technology satire, it’s a media satire and one episode in particular merges the two. ‘Joan Is Awful’ explores the idea of a TV network that pumps out targeted AI-generated content targeted at individual people. In the episode, Annie Murphy plays a digital media CEO who turns on her TV one night to find that her favourite app, Streamberry (with deliberate echoes of Netflix itself), has used her personal data to dramatise everything she did that day.
“This is stuff that’s absolutely on their minds at the moment,” he explained to Esquire. “As writers, the thought that we could end up soon with automatically generated entertainment that is endlessly targeted directly at individuals is horrifying.”
The episode, like to much of Black Mirror, is eerily prescient and inspired by his own experiments with Generative AI.
“I toyed around with Chat GPT to come up with a Black Mirror storyline and it will spit out something that at first glance gives you a kind of sudden spike of dread,” he said in conversation with BBC Culture Editor Katie Razzall. “You think ‘That’s it. I’m out of a job… this thing has replaced me because it looks convincing.’ But really what it’s doing is sort of emulating. It’s an impersonator. For now, all it can do it be like Rory Bremner.
“I know that sounds like I’m dissing Rory Bremner,” he continued. “But it’s mashing up stuff that other people have already done. It’s just hoovering up content and repackaging it. And actually, once you sort of sit there and look at it, it’s very derivative. You still need a human to come in and make it usable.”
Brooker thinks the danger for creatives is that commissioning executives using Gen-AI to generate “a bit of IP”, that doesn’t actually work “until you get a human writer in to “make it something that’s saleable or usable. And of course, that person doesn’t get paid or wouldn’t get paid as much.”
Black Mirror might present as a dystopian set of warnings from a switched-on Nostradamus (remember the pig and politician episode in Series 1 on Channel 4 which coincided with Prime Minister Cameron’s own porcine past) but Brooker insists he is no luddite.
Because of the inadequacies of current Generation AI as he finds it, Brooker is optimistic of the value of writers and longevity of human creativity.
“I think the best, most surprising ideas emerge when you’re relaxed and ostensibly supposed to be thinking about something else, and suddenly your mind wanders into a room it hadn’t planned on entering,” he observes in the production notes. “Something like ChatGPT can’t do that. It has no genuinely original ideas of its own: it hoovers up material other people have already written – without paying them for the privilege and attempts to pass itself off as human.
“I can see its eventual potential value as part of a human writer’s toolkit – a sort of author’s equivalent of the ‘autofill’ tool in Photoshop – but certainly for now the stuff it creates only looks imaginative to people with no imagination of their own.”
Sir Paul McCartney has apparently used AI to polish and augment John Lennon’s vocals from a demo recorded in 1979. Brooker suggests that using AI to generate more Beatles music, whether by McCartney or anybody, is to be welcomed but that the value and interest we derive from it stems from The Beatles’ history and our curiosity about them
“What’s of interest is that it’s about these human beings who made all this stuff that we love, and their personalities and their stories is actually what we’re actually interested in there. I don’t know if creatively it will take the place of human creators because I think we’ll always be interested in people in that narcissistic kind of way.”
Referring back to the Joan is Awful episode, he talks about the streaming platform featured in the series, Streamberry.
“Put it this way, if we weren’t showing the series on Netflix, we would be being sued by Netflix for how it looks in terms of corporate identity,” he said in the programme notes. “We asked if we could ape the front end of Netflix, and they said yes. It’s not quite biting the hand that feeds because it’s funny. It meant we could throw in lots of easter eggs in the show. You could argue that Black Mirror is a fictional universe within the Streamberry platform.
“If anyone asks me, “Is it a shared universe?” I can say yes, and that can also be my get-out clause for any inconsistencies across the series. I wrote (another series 6 episode) ‘Loch Henry’ before Joan is Awful and had to go back and retrofit the idea of the Streamberry into the show.
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