By Skylar Bloom
America marvelled at the release of the fifth season of Black Mirror , and watched with
confusion as the first episode, “Striking Vipers” unfolded. It tells the story of old college friends
Danny and Karl who reconnect in a VR video game. Yet their experiences quickly turn sexual
and the two become addicted to sex via the video game. In fact, sex in “real world” feels
significantly less good and the episode ends with the two managing, but surely maintaining, their addiction. In today’s world, technology like such exists, and is rapidly improving and becoming more “life-like”. And while Black Mirror is a work of fiction, it highlights the growing tendency to become addicted to technology, or at least the sensation one feels when using such a device. While it provides a positive outlook for medical research development, there are still too many unanswered questions about BCI technology that worry me about its efficacy in the modern world including its physical and social implications.
Over lockdown this previous year, Nathan Copeland of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center researched and worked on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) by living with an surgically implanted chip in his brain. The chip records the release of cellular neurons, which are brought to a computer for “decoding”. This signal is “translated” into the desired, seemingly telekinetic actions of its user in Copeland’s case who uses such technology for a robotic arm. This use of the technology seems justifiable as it aids an individual in everyday life activities, but this technology expands to the video game industry as the same BCI can basically think video game actions into existence. For example, one could drive a car by thinking of the sensation of driving a car and the subsequent neurons released will relay this information through code.
While the average video game industry currently lacks such extraordinary technology, it is not for lack of trying. Technology superstars like Elon Musk have invested in this technology and await the efficacy of commercializing it on a larger scale. Their goal seems to be to eventually allow all consumers to purchase BCI technology for themselves and immerse themselves in seemingly crude situations.
It is for this reason that I personally take slight issue with the commercialization of BCI technology. Its capacity to help people, specifically those who are paralyzed, is immense. It, therefore, would seem odd to me to have any reason to implement such technology on a leisurely basis as there would surely be those who could use the technology to help their mobility rather than improve entertainment. Put plainly, this technology can help people or add to our world’s obsession and over-reliance on technology. And while commercializing this technology would be better for those in use of this medical technology, it would have the opposite effect on the general population. Clearly assisting those in need seems like the more ethical solution. But there are more serious ethical concerns with this technology.
The technology itself created by Copeland contains sensors on its mechanized fingertips that can trigger signals back to the person using the technology, capable of generating what he describes as a tingling, warm sensation. This suggests that the technology may have the capacity to affect the brain as it is open to be damaged. Nita Farahany, a professor at Duke University, a leading specialist in neuro-ethics, says this aspect of BCIs poses huge questions as we do know the long term implications of these alterations. This also raises the question as to whether or not people can become addicted to the sensations in their brain.
And so “Striking Vipers” comes back into play. Is it possible for BCI technology to change our brains without us knowing the real possibilities of damage from such changes? The answer – yes. I think our current level of understanding in regards to BCI technology is too limited and the progression of this technology into video games causes much concern. Our population is addicted to technology enough. I can only imagine what the progression of technology will do for those who need an alternative reality to get through the day. But for now, I am hoping that “Striking Vipers” does not become a reality through BCI technology. Like Farahany says, there are still too many questions to be answered.