Artificial intelligence is unlikely ever to rival the depth of human creativity, according to Charlie Brooker, because AI is just not messy enough.
The creator of Black Mirror admitted that he initially experienced a surge of emotion akin to panic and despair when he instructed ChatGPT to write an episode of his Channel Four/Netflix hit television series, known for its dark and often darkly humorous exploration of emerging and future technology.
“I said to ChatGPT, ‘Go give me an outline for a Black Mirror story,’” he told a capacity crowd at an International Convention Centre SXSW event in Sydney on Wednesday.
“And as it’s coming through in the first couple of sentences you feel a cold spike of fear, like animal terror.
“Like I’m being fucking replaced. I’m not even gonna see what it does. I’m gonna jump out the fucking window.”
The paranoia was short-lived.
“Then as it carries on you go, ‘Oh this is boring. I was frightened a second ago, now I’m bored because this is so derivative.’
“It’s just emulating something. It’s Hoovered up every description of every Black Mirror episode, presumably from Wikipedia and other things that people have written, and it’s just sort of vomiting that back at me. It’s pretending to be something it isn’t capable of being.”
AI is here to stay and can be a very powerful tool, Brooker told his audience.
“But I can’t quite see it replacing messy people,” he said of the AI chatbot and its limited capacity to generate imaginative storylines and ingenious plot twists.
Black Mirror’s 27 episodes and one interactive film, spread across six seasons, have collected three Emmys for outstanding television movies over the past decade. The series is widely placed among Netflix’s Top 10 of all time, with IMDb users ranking it seventh overall – outranking both House of Cards and The Crown.
But Brooker has also been accused of watering down the show’s sinister or bleak themes after Netflix bought the series from Channel 4 after the second season and marketed it to a more commercial audience.
Brooker raised the accusation himself at the SXSW event.
“One of the criticisms we sometimes get is, ‘I prefer the show when it was British and everyone in it was miserable and everything smelled a little bit of shit and all the stories were horrible,’” the 52-year-old Berkshire-born director and writer said.
“And then it’s gone to Netflix and suddenly everything’s sunny and happy and everyone has wonderful teeth, and it’s full of Hollywood stars and it’s lost that edge.”
Brooker said he understood and accepted the criticism, and admitted that when he had first started doing business in the US “everyone expected me to be like the Unabomber”. But he insisted the streaming company played little role in the show’s evolution.
“Arguably the happiest [episode] I’ve ever written was San Junipero and I just did that off my own back,” he said.
“I was aware we’re going on a global platform now, so we’ve got to make these stories a bit more international. And I wanted to mix it up a bit, as in not just keep doing bleak-a-thons.”
He made the point that one episode in the last season, the serial killer-themed Loch Henry, was “fucking nasty – nasty as anything we’ve ever done”.
Brooker also dispelled the misconception that Black Mirror is an iteration of its creator’s own mistrust and ultimate rejection of emerging technology.
“It frustrates me when people go, ‘Oh Black Mirror, that’s the [smart]phones are bad show,’ or, ‘That’s the show written by a luddite,’” the former video games journalist said.
“I love technology. I’m very interested in technology. And this would be the worst job you could do if you really hated technology because a lot of the job involves product design and working out how that thing is going to ruin someone’s life.”
Brooker suggested that San Junipero, which delivers an optimistic view of the capacity of simulated reality to offer a pleasurable afterlife, might be his personal favourite.
“It’s probably one of the most meaningful ones we’ve done,” he said. “It was the first positive one that I’d done because, up until that point, every Black Mirror was about someone in a trap and they didn’t get out of it. And in [San Junipero] it was two people in a trap and that’s fine. It seemed that that resonated with a lot of people.”
“It’s definitely something I would do again and I think there are lots of ways to tackle it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
He also hinted at the possibility of revisiting the horror instalment from the second series, White Bear, for a sequel and had entertained the idea of turning Demon 79, featured in the latest season, into a standalone series.
But he refused to reveal when Black Mirror fans would be able to binge on a seventh season.
As early as 2019, Brooker was talking about making another interactive Black Mirror episode after 2018’s Bandersnatch.
Netflix has yet to make any announcement on any potential seventh Black Mirror season.