02/10/2018 / By David Williams
The critically acclaimed TV-show-turned-Netflix series Black Mirror has been on a roll for pretty much the entirety of its six-season-long run. Despite its typically shocking storylines and twists — which prompt viewers to stop watching after every episode to contemplate what they just saw — it is almost universally loved and always near the top of most must-watch lists on the internet.
It has garnered so much attention, in fact, that a top professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab has gone so far as to require her students to watch all of its episodes as part of their curriculum. With the MIT Media Labs’ history of being an “outside of the box” kind of institution, this should be no surprise. But there’s no denying that requiring students to watch a specific TV show as part of their lessons is quite far from the norm.
According to Pattie Maes, the founder and director of the Fluid Interfaces research group at the MIT Media Lab, her purpose in making the students watch the show Black Mirror is to instill in them a sense of awareness of what vile and despicable things might be possible if technology is driven to advance in the wrong direction. “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 the impact the technologies they develop will have on society and on people’s lives,” she said.
Maes may not be the first person to recognize that Black Mirror is basically a negative version of how things can go wrong with technology, but she’s certainly the first to make a lesson plan out of it. In her view, it can be useful for all of her students — or anyone involved in the development of new digital services and systems — to watch the show and see the things that happen in it as what should be avoided. The main idea behind the professor’s plan then is simply to expose the students to possible scenarios that they absolutely must keep in mind as they work on developing next-generation technology in their future startups and companies.
Maes herself has plenty of experience in the fields of artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, and cognitive augmentation. So many of the show’s most popular episodes have resonated with her, and in her view, it is in the best interest of the students to watch all of these episodes themselves.
“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,” explained Maes. She points out to Facebook as the quintessential example of a service that was built by a lot of engineers. “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,” she said.
Since she has incorporated the show into the student curriculum, Maes now hopes that there will be a new generation of thoughtful engineers that will be able to harness the power of technology in more responsible ways than their predecessors. And of course, steer things in the right direction at the first sign of danger.
“We need people who design new systems that are more aligned with people’s real, true interests and goals,” Maes said. “We need people who will be changing the future for the better.”
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