Once More With Feeling–Or Maybe Twice More

How many times have you wished you could replay a scene from your life? Maybe your happiest memory, or a moment you don’t remember clearly enough, or perhaps a conversation with a crush, which almost certainly contained clues if only you could watch more closely, more slowly. A variation of that last scenario is depicted in a Black Mirror episode called “The Entire History of You,” in which people receive implants that record memories and allow them to replay–or as the episode calls it, “re-do”–conversations and events. Spoiler alert: it’s not a happy story.

Once a technology like this is conceived, it’s tough to resist the temptation to create it. Google Glass was the predecessor to Black Mirror‘s recording chip—even though it wasn’t implanted, it could record and playback what the user saw and heard. One recording of a fight on a New Jersey boardwalk led to an arrest; for others, simply wearing Glass made them targets for law enforcement. While it might be good to identify an assailant via Glass video, what about the right to privacy for people out and about who have no knowledge of or have given no consent to being recorded? While it might not seem like a big deal to wear Glass into a movie theater or while driving, doing so could facilitate illegal videotaping and dangerous distractions. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to implications, and Glass was only a primitive version of the recorder implant.

Less primitive is Sony’s foray into “smart” contact lenses, for which the company filed a patent application in 2014 and received approval in April 2016. Sony’s lenses can, in theory, capture photo and video in response to commands a wearer sends via blinking and eye movement. What happens if a wearer gets something in her eye? Will the lens begin recording or deleting footage? Will it start shooting lasers? Who knows, but Sony has put some thought into the consequences of unintended signals by embedding sensors in the lenses that apparently can distinguish between deliberate blinks and accidental or involuntary ones, and then use intentional eye movements to control the lens. The ability to record and store images exists in the part of the lens that circles the iris.

Of course, a patent doesn’t necessarily mean that Sony actually can or will bring this device to market—right now, the required technology is still far too big and heavy to fit onto a contact lens, but given the exponential pace at which technology both advances and shrinks, we may not have to wait all that long. It’s possible that the backlash against Google Glass may make Sony a bit nervous about developing a surreptitious recording device, but Google itself remains undaunted—it filed a patent for a similar lens in 2014, which the company says would assist with facial recognition for the blind, as well as link to a user’s smartphone, enabling them to bypass potentially pesky blink controls.

In 2015, Google was awarded a patent for a contact lens that can measure glucose levels in people with diabetes. With a glucose sensor and wireless chip nestled between two lens layers, the contact can measure one’s glucose level by the second. It might take as long as a decade before these contacts hit the market, but they may be a game-changer for diabetics. While such technology overlaps with recording contact lenses, it’s much easier to justify such devices for medical purposes, particularly when they don’t threaten anyone’s privacy.

Just as with Google Glass, contact lenses that can record video might initially seem convenient, but they bring a host of negative consequences. It’s easy to imagine the dark side—the unspooling of someone’s mind upon recording and playing back scene after scene, or redo after redo. Anyone who has ever experienced jealousy, paranoia, regret, shame, guilt, suspicion—or any human emotion, really—could use this technology for self-torment, which is exactly what happens in the episode. The twist is that a redo proves the paranoid protagonist right, but the validation and vindication blow up his entire life. Sometimes, what we don’t remember can hurt us—but not if we close our eyes.

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