Black Mirror – The Entire History of You – Review

Black Mirror – The Entire History of You – Review

This is a review of Season 1 Episode 3 of Netflix’s Black Mirror. Once again, this is not a review of the storyline, cinematography, character choices or anything like that, but is instead a review exclusively of the technology within the episode. The episode, called ‘The Entire History of You’ was aired on the 18th of December 2011, airing on Channel 4 and later being acquired by Netflix and put on their streaming service. We recommend you watch the episode as there will be spoilers.

Relevant technology

The Entire History of You is different to Fifteen Million Merits in that there is only one central technology, the ‘Grain’ implant, as opposed to the number of technologies in Fifteen Million Merits. This ‘Grain‘ is an implantable grain-sized piece of tech most notable for memory storage and replay, which can be shared on screens and interacted with via remote, hence ‘the entire history of you’. We will take a look at each feature of the ‘Grain’ showed in the episode. Thankfully, we are conveniently given a short advert for the product, which serves as a good summary:

"'Live, breathe, smell. Full spectrum memory. You can get a Willow Grain upgrade for less than the price of a daily cup of coffee, and three decades of backup for free. Install ingrained procedure with local anaesthetic and you're good to go, because memory is for living."
Willow Grain
Willow Grain
Fictional Company

Remote controller and implant

One key prop to The Entire History of You is the remote controller that controls all the function of the grain implant. The controller works most comparabe to the classic iPod scrolling wheel, but with the size of a key fob. This is seen in the short clip here. The controller also has other utilities, such as acting as an RFID enabled device. The implant is a similarly sized object that is inserted just behind the right ear. It is responsible for the memory capture, storage and ‘re-do’ capability shown in the episode. One scene in which the grain is removed we see that it consists of the main small object and a single long wire, presumably going into the brain. The implant made a visible coloured pulsation under the skin.

The remote control certainly seems reasonable. Most of the technology it used already exists in some form. The controller-device interactions would probably work by Bluetooth. The scrolling and button mechanism is a very mature technology, now largely being replaced by voice control, and fingerprint sensors could easily be used as security. As for the implant, this seems less plausible, at least as it was presented in the episode. One idea that could allow for the small size is Moore’s law, though Physics demands this has a limit. Only quantum computers could feasibly allow for such high throughput and storage, but little is known about how to build these at a large size.

Video, sound and sensory storage

This technology has the potential to be revolutionary, something The Entire History of You barely scrapes the barrel of. The actual technology in the episode is shown by the Grain implant, with the main body presumably being responsible for all the computing and storage. This wire presumably goes directly into the brain either where senses are processed or memories recollected. From the episode, the wire looked a little thinner than a wired mouse cable and with only one line, literally as though someone got a mouse wire and cut off the ends. No distinction is made as to the position of the brain end of the wire.

The actual memory capture and re-do is fairly unreasonable with a single wire. Due in part to the fact that neurons in the brain interact primarily through electrical signals, it is plausible that some electronic device would be able to record any senses and repeat their electrical pattern as part of remembering them, similar to how organic memories work. This also allows the Grain to input its own sensory information such as images and alerts. However, this seems very unlikely to be possible with such a small device and wire. Something else like a neural lace may seem more plausible, meaning the concept is at least technologically conceivable.

Identification, security and payment

The Entire History of You also uses the Grain and its controller for identification. The first case of this is at an airport where the main character Liam, played by Toby Kebbell, walks through a security gate and his details instantly pop up on the computer. He is then asked to replay the last 24 hours on a fast reverse, which also appears on the screen. After he gets a taxi and pays by touching his controller to a screen. The Grain also appears to be connected to other accounts, such as insurance. This is seen when Liam attempts to drive drunk and the Grain gives an alert that in the case of an accident car insurance and life insurance will be void.

Technology like this is very well established. RFID has long been used for payments and accounts and exists in debit and credit cards, mobile phones, keys and even actual implants. Near-field communication (NFC) would also pose a good solution to this challenge, as it enables communication with computer devices at a low range to transmit data, including packages as big as videos, a feature Android users have long enjoyed. This would be fairly easy to build into the remote, with supplementary Bluetooth enabling further data transmission.

Image recognition

One other feature of the Grain is image recognition software. The Grain was able to detect when Liam was in a car and at other times was able to detect and identify faces. This feature wasn’t very prominent in this episode but was hidden there as a hint of the extra capability of the technology. One feature the Grain had that image recognition is still getting around was retroactive lip reading, which was used to decipher a conversation too far away to be heard.

Image recognition is a well-known and popular buzz phrase at the moment. Many technology manufacturers are marketing their products as having image recognition, with the main uses being in camera AI and autonomous driving. Given this, image recognition would be very easy to implement into a sensory capture and memory database. Lip reading shouldn’t be too much of a challenge either as neural network AI is getting increasingly proficient at learning a skill.

Screen sharing and user interface

Screen sharing, the easier to understand of the two technologies is done via the controller in the episode. It is used to share ‘re-do’s of old memories and was shown with up to three memories playing at once. This was done without any noticeable set-up process and appears to be automatic when you point the controller at the screen. This was the external version of the interface, but users could also have the same views internally, with the internal mode having more senses and more realistic senses. The actual user interface looked like had a ring with the main memory or command in the middle and sometimes other memories on either side. The remote allowed the user to reverse at a speed of their choosing, queue up memories, play from any time, zoom and enhance and interpret speech or images. It also worked on screen for babies, raising questions about a child’s interface.

Screen-casting has been possible for a lot of time now, and it’s reasonable to assume that if the Grain can record memories it could also transmit them. It would be interesting to know the limit of how many memories could be viewed at once, but this isn’t gone into too much in The Entire History of You. As for the UI, it all seems possible from a software perspective. Media apps like Google Photos already categorise and process images so queues of related memories seem like an easy adaptation. Zooming is interesting as there should be a limit at some point, and one other question is the usual variation in eye movement that is usually filled in by the brain. There is one question as to whether the system records the brain’s interpretation or the true footage, but this question goes unanswered. I think it’s more likely for the episode that the brain’s version is copied as there were no visible cameras.

Physical evaluation

Perhaps the only given feature outside of sensory capture and memory storage was the physical evaluation. This was seen in the form of an alert that insurance will be void as Liam was about to drive despite being physically unsuitable in his current state. This was due to drinking a lot of alcohol beforehand, something the Grain managed to detect.

One possible way this could have been achieved is due to the nature of alcohol and the brain. Software in the Grain may have been able to detect thought pattern abnormality and matched this to the known effects of alcohol. The driving could have been detected either with image recognition or some way of knowing the intent of the user, either of which seems possible.

Summary

The technology in The Entire History of You seems like it would be at least technically possible, though the small package shown seems very ambitious and largely improbable. This seems like it would be better achieved with technology like neural lace, but this was a surprisingly accurate episode given its airing date. Assuming that sensory capture and memory was possible, the rest of the technology also seems very likely for the time. Based on the projected release of Neuralink’s neural lace and the lack of overwhelming futurism, I would place this episode between the 2030s and mid-2040s, though the technology could exist slightly earlier.

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Loui Coleman

Author of Generation Byte

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