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Black Mirror’s vision of ChatGPT

I’ve been on a “Black Mirror” phase since winter break and there’s a special episode, titled “Be Right Back,” which we must reflect on due to Black Mirror’s trademark “predicting the future” abilities. 

It’s a tragedy, at least in how it felt. A woman makes love to her real-life husband, who, she learns in the next scene, passes away suddenly and unexpectedly while becoming a father in the next scene, which is set in a bathroom with a positive pregnancy test in focus.  

Hopeless, the young widow hesitantly turns to a futuristic, husband-like intelligent bot which gives her the taste of speaking with her late loved one. It sounds ridiculous, but who are we to judge? She found relief in the bot, something we are all vulnerable to.

Eventually, she gets frustrated with the bot, which eventually takes on a physical form, though no more alive than before. The bot used public images and social media posts of the woman’s husband to source its personality, and indeed was at first charming to the widow. That was all, however, and in the episode, the woman can’t bond any further than simple flirtation with the bot-husband. 

It is clear she misses the real life man, and the issue only gets more heart-wrenching as the new mother must co-parent with this robo-Dad.

You should watch the episode, but also keep in mind one of the most important developments for Notre Dame students this spring semester: the rise of ChatGPT.

ChatGPT, like the Black Mirror robo-husband, is programmed to have a very specific personality. For as intense as artificial intelligence is, this is essential to keep in mind.

The new software is made to be helpful, to avoid being rude and to maintain ethical conduct with all its outputs; so is the robo-husband, who over the course of “Be Right Back” struggles to act as a human would in emotionally-charged situations. Because artificial intelligence is programmed, it has limits specifically due to its perfection. 

And to be fair, ChatGPT is honest about these limits, providing examples of its weaknesses on the program’s opening page or if you ask it to do so.

The robo-husband is convincing but too impartial for real life. There is an eerie scene in “Be Right Back” in which the woman slaps the robo-husband, but gets more upset when he, in a programmed manner, says he wouldn’t reciprocate any anger because it wouldn’t be right.

The woman cries that her real husband would’ve been mad at her, and she clearly misses him even though his clone is standing right in front of her.

Though it is more productive than humans are, generating far more efficient outputs of calculation than we can, there are real limits which keep humans slightly and barely unreplaceable during the ever-growing state of technology. To be human is to be imperfect. It’s how we fall in love, display creativity, earn trust with one another and express ourselves.

Though ChatGPT is clearly a wonderful statement of technology’s power, for now we don’t need to fret about humanity being replaced; only beware of this development’s limitations.

And that is exactly what Black Mirror’s writers have so ingeniously portrayed: Artificial intelligence may be more dangerous due to its limitations than its power. As we encounter our new reality of the growing role of artificial intelligence, many will be forced to adapt, as with any revolutionary technology. Some jobs will be lost, others may flourish and still others may be left untouched.

But life, clearly, cannot be reduced to a program. ChatGPT may replace your profession, or maybe even help you at your job, but it won’t replace your life. It may be able to mimic your widow, if given ample information to source from, but the program will soon become stale for your emotional needs, as it has nothing new to express.

Contact Liam Price at lprice3@nd.edu.