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Blurring the Lines Between Fantasy and Reality

A "Black Mirror" episode illustrates the danger of seeing the world through an AI filter

The dystopian Netflix show Black Mirror featured an episode a few years ago about soldiers tasked with wiping out an apparently mutant adversary. In reality, the soldiers are seeing the world through an AI filter that is casting ordinary human beings as despicable monsters. The AI lessens their hesitations to kill the enemy.

An article at Nautilus cited a research group that’s asking how much of that horrifying story could potentially unfold in real time, or is already happening to a certain extent in today’s culture. Social media apps like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram already use face altering techniques in their apps, allowing users to curate idealized images of themselves. But what happens when, as in the Black Mirror episode, other people are the ones who get blurred or distorted? It turns out that it makes us a bit more selfish.

Brian Gallagher writes,

The researchers take the episode to be a meditation on the impact face-blurring technology could have on us ethically and psychologically. Many of us, they point out, are already desensitized to the routine use of sophisticated image-altering filters on apps like TikTok, where users can, for example, look like their teenage selves or, more controversially, touch up their appearance. “What we do not fully realize yet is that filters could also change the way others see us. In the future, metaverse interactions and offline interactions mediated by augmented reality devices will offer endless possibilities for people to alter the way they see their environment or the way they see other people,” they write. “In this work, we focused on a simple alteration, which is already easily implementable in real-time: blurring the faces of others.”

Brian Gallagher, How We’re Becoming Bigger Jerks Online – Nautilus

The researchers found that when participants played a game involving giving away money charitably with a partner, they allocated monies more selfishly when their partner’s face was blurred. Losing that basic aspect of the human person lessened the motivation to be altruistic. Other results in the research were more mixed, but overall, it seems that depersonalization via AI negatively impacted people’s generous impulses.

Even with social media and its infinity of virtual avatars, it’s hard to pause and give the person behind the profile his or her adequate due. We become so used to scrolling through all these personalities and faces, subtly believing we’re the center of the world because we’re at the center of the app and forget that all this is a simulation that doesn’t do justice to the truth about ourselves or the people we relate to. Accepting each other with all our flaws and strengths might be the beginning of an antidote to the depersonalizing effects of the image economy.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Blurring the Lines Between Fantasy and Reality