Can we make the Grain, from Black Mirror, a reality?

On the most recent episode of Unsupervised Binge Watching, we entered Charlie Brooker’s brilliant world of Black Mirror. With so many themes, incredible technology, and real life implications to discuss, we could only dip our toes into what could potentially turn into a series of episodes, discussing what we can do today and what we’re mere seconds away from achieving.

Black Mirror, a sci-fi anthology, explores a world that doesn’t seem all that different from the one we live in today. Sometimes subtle, sometimes as a punch to the gut, Black Mirror takes you to an often uncomfortable place; a place where you’re required to reflect upon the obsession we, as a society, have with technology, our gadgets and our varied black mirrors.

In the episode, we discussed The Entire History of You, where we were transported into a world in which a device, called the Grain, is implanted into one’s head, allowing for the storage and immediate access of all memories via a personal lens stream or on-demand for sharing; of any episode, interaction, observation, etc., a person experiences. Unadulterated. All day. Everyday.

Let’s pause right here for a moment, shall we? Can you imagine? Seriously!

First, fighting would NEVER be the same. How often, when in a disagreement with someone, do you say (or think) “that’s not what I said”, “you didn’t” or “I didn’t”. Or, you’re confident that if anyone else were observing the conversation, they’d side with you. All that would be thrown out the window. All you’d have to say is “redo”, which is this episode’s version of “play the tape!”. It’s incredible and terrifying at the same time, rendering us all life athletes, watching back the play by play, calling fouls as we see them.

I was of two minds while watching this episode. As a former psychology major, I’m fascinated with how memories are formed and influenced by perception, how we’re susceptible to persuasion and fold like pretzels to avoid cognitive dissonance. The Grain would ensure, to a degree, objectivity; avoiding false memories, false eye witness testimony, loss of car keys, etc. You know, the important stuff. Then, of course, my mind started to imagine all the ways in which this technology, already here in most cases (think of body cams or glasses that can record long or short video), can be used for good, not just to fuel jealous fits of rage, as it did with Liam, the protagonist in this episode, whose relationship and life was ruined by the Grain.

As we discussed what would be required to make the Grain happen in real life, we concluded that we’re closer than one might think. Watson can already ingest, index and learn from unstructured data. Watson partnered with TED to ingest thousands of hours of video content, making it searchable. In a previous blog, I mentioned how IBM Cloud is using deep learning algorithms to detect images with Visual Recognition. Storing, scaling and securing this amount of data is possible with IBM’s Unified Governance and Integration platform, flexible enough for changing regulation, such as GDPR, as my colleague shares here. To track and record these memories, we even discussed how Blockchain could be applied. All we need to figure out is the lens, implantation, privacy, etc. No big deal, right?

While I don’t want to discount the real issues related to privacy and security explored in Black Mirror, where we’re forced to ponder what would happen if we lean into all those areas that should be met with significant caution, I am fully invested in the impact technology can make, at least for good, to change the world.

Grain Assist, an apparent feature of the Grain, warned Liam, who’d had far too much to drink, that he did not have the capacity to operate his vehicle. Doing so would be at his own risk, rendering his insurance invalid. The ability to protect people by preventing drunk drivers would be tremendous for society, provided, of course, that it couldn’t be overridden. This feature got me thinking about other ways we can be assisted.

Take healthcare, for example. We already have wearables that track vitals and even blood, in some instances. What if we could take and learn from Grain data coupled with real time sensory data generated by these IoT devices? Sharing that insight could the flip the healthcare engagement model on its head. Rather than seek it out when one is often in a state of discomfort, pain, or disorientation, can engagement be initiated by a healthcare practitioner? With Watson Assistant, new to IBM’s cognitive computing platform, developers can build digital assistants, with a “conversational user experience … across web, mobile, wearables and even robotics”.

What if a physician could be prompted everyday with the list of patients to contact as they’re currently experiencing or about to experience symptoms caused by any host of reasons? A wellness check for an elderly person whose blood pressure has slowed and who hasn’t moved much in the last 4 hours. Prophylactic measures for someone whose temperature has begun to rise, but hasn’t yet felt the first symptom of an illness, which they were exposed to, as detected by an uptick in diagnoses in a geographic area they recently visited. No longer would physicians and/or first responders be limited by the narrative provided by a given patient or victim. They could have access to relevant information necessary for immediate treatment.

The applications here are endless.

Think about what can be learned from the vast amounts of data something like the Grain can generate contemporaneously by everyone, everywhere. What can you do with that? How can build a solution, provide a service?

Want to explore how you can start to build your version of the Grain? You can get started with IBM Cloud right now to learn about data storage and security, explore cognitive services and start your journey. IBM WolfPack is here to help you. To find out about live, hands-on events in a city near you, visit us here.

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