This year started with a buzz around China's plan to implement the Zhima Credit in 2020, a personal credit rating system associated with Alipay - the main form of mobile payment in the country - which is integrated with China's governmental blacklist, named 'List of Dishonest People.' When reading this piece of news, fans of the Netflix dystopian TV series Black Mirror couldn't fail to notice how uncanny the resemblance was between Zhima Credit and the social credit system used in the show's first episode in Season 3, Nosedive, first aired on October 21st, 2016.
In a nutshell, Black Mirror is a British science fiction TV show, featuring stand-alone episodes created by Charlie Brooker, an English humorist, critic, author, screenwriter, producer, and presenter. Each episode highlights one technology that often rings a bell. The episode typically starts off utopian; everyone's happy with their helpful gadgets powered by ultra-modern technology, until this gadget turns against them due to a glitch, or simply misuse of it. Black Mirror's Sci-Fi has tackled personal finances, healthcare, personal relationships, and entertainment, among other things.
Ever since Black Mirror started airing, people have been watching technology grow with a fear that it might grow - or already is - against them. In a region very much used to getting into everyone's business, whether there's an agenda or not, will the MENA authorities and private sector go hand in hand to leverage technology to step up their power on people's personal space? We speak to different startups across the Middle East to get an idea.
1. 'Nosedive' - Social Credit Systems and blockchain
The Social Credit System used in Nosedive works pretty much like social media, but goes deeper than just boosting one's ego and self esteem - it also boosts one's financial status. In the first episode of the third season, people rate each other the same way people rate Uber drivers today. Every person is rated on every single interaction they make throughout the day, and that rating gets stored in a chip implant in their body, which links a person's social interaction with his financial status; so it determines whether one can afford an apartment, a train, or a flight ticket. If people decide to rebel against this system and have their implants removed, they get ignored and rejected by the implanted society.
Other than the Zhima Credit System, such an authoritative approach linking social interactions with personal finances isn't much of a far-fetched reality, especially considering recent news that Trump administration is seeking to change visa applications to require all applicants to turn over five years of social media history.
In Cairo, NU TechSpace just launched last month to become Egypt and MENA's first blockchain-focused startup incubator. Incubation Director Mohamed Gouda is actually a fan of Black Mirror and has been fascinated by that episode. "It is not revealed in the episode nor in China whether these systems are using blockchain technology or not; however, it doesn't make a difference to the user. All the difference would be in the backend," Gouda tells Startup Scene ME, explaining that if the data is centralised and exclusive to only one authority - which is in this case the Zhima Credit System - that won't be blockchain. "Blockchain would actually protect users' data since the data is decentralised and distributed on the entire network," he says.
2. 'Playtest' and AR Gaming
In Playtest, the second episode of Black Mirror’s third season, a new augmented reality (AR) technology, "mushroom," is tested by a game developer for a next-level horror game. A chip is implanted into the back of a user's neck, a medium used to implement most of Black Mirror’s technologies, and it explores the player's brain for information about their deepest, darkest fears, using this data to create scenarios in the AR game.
Even though this chip-technology in particular seems far-fetched, it is deemed "inevitable" as described by Siri's co-founder and an Apple Executive Tom Gruber. In fact, Elon Musk’s telepathy startup, Neuralink, is developing what they call neural lace technology that would involve “implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts,” as Wall Street Journal puts it. Interesting statements by Facebook executives such as Regina Dugan, have also implied that they are working on developing a similar technology to Black Mirror's chip implant as well. "What if you could type directly from your brain?" mused Dugan - who leads the company's secretive hardware development initiative - at the Facebook's developers conference in April 2017.
Although some companies are exploring the possibilities of tapping directly into the brain, it will be at least 30-50 years before brain implants are safe and stable enough for consumer roll out, if ever. Besides the biological constraints, there are a plethora of privacy and health concerns to consider.
However, the Founder and CEO of the MIT-award-winning Dubai-based AR company Pixelbug, thinks differently. "No, there is no technology today that could make that episode a reality," Dany El-Eid tells Startup Scene ME. "Even the head-mounted displays don't have the tech yet to completely fool the brain. You do get some level of presence in VR but you'd need at least a 16K resolution for the user to confuse the immersive environment with the outside world," he argues further; adding that even at a crude level it's far fetched. So, having a chip implant that can entirely take over the nervous system is even more far out.
"Although some companies are exploring the possibilities of tapping directly into the brain, it will be at least 30-50 years before brain implants are safe and stable enough for consumer roll out, if ever. Besides the biological constraints, there are a plethora of privacy and health concerns to consider," he concludes.
3. 'Arkangel' - Tracking children
Arkangel, a controversial surveillance tool featured in the second episode in the fourth season of the TV show, has taken mothers aback with surprise, fearing their obsession about their kids' safety would have them end up in the shoes of the protagonist. Arkangel is a chip implanted into a child's head, which gives the parents access to the child's whereabouts, memories, and feelings, all portrayed on an iPad-like tablet; which additionally gives them the ability to censor images they're seeing on screens and in real life as well as censor sounds and words parents don't want their kids to hear.
The Alexandria-based application provides a GPS-tracking service to be installed on school buses, both for parents to track their children and schools to track their vehicles.
In reality, there are several apps that track kids for the same reason but with less complicated technology. We speak to Ramy Magdy, the senior marketing executive of Innuva IT solutions, the mother company of Follow My Kid, MENA's closest application to Black Mirror's tablet. The Alexandria-based application provides a GPS-tracking service to be installed on school buses, both for parents to track their children and schools to track their vehicles. "We are trying to present a B2B2C service to provide both ends with assurance," Magdy tells Startup Scene ME. "Both parents and school administrators have access to the GPS-tracker, but only the school is the end that pays the fees." Launched in October 2017 at the Techne Summit, Follow My Kid is now being used in two schools in Cairo.
4. 'Hang the DJ' and Dating Apps
In episode four of season four, Brooker highlights a next-level dating app. Just like current dating apps, Black Mirror's app, 'The System,' uses an algorithm to determine one's compatibility with a new partner, however this one works by completing 2,000 relationship simulations. The System makes two users stay together for a random amount of time, from an hour to a year, then sets them free with a sigh of relief or separates them with a heartbreak.
Back in the real world, Palestine's Gaza Strip is home to a similar dating app; although technologically limited, it has the same authoritative time constraint. Wesal is the first of its kind in the religiously conservative area, where Tinder and similar apps are often banned. The site was launched by entrepreneur Hashem Sheikha, 34, in March 2017, and managed to match-make 160 couples who got married using the app in just six months, according to the New York Times.
Abiding by ultra-conservative rules, Wesal allows men to look for potential wives and vice versa, without having either profile pictures nor chatting channels because both are considered haram, or prohibited in Islam, according to Sheikha. Even though it might be considered medieval to some, Wesal holds a common theme with The System, as they are both constrained by time - even though Wesal ironically gives more liberty. When two users express mutual interest, the potential groom must meet the parents of the prospective wife and propose within 48 hours. Men who fail to follow through are banned from the site.
5. 'Fifteen Million Merits' - Un-skippable Ads
Fifteen Million Merits, the second episode in season one, features advertisements that track eye movements in a way that if one is looking away from the screen, the ad will pause until one is paying full attention. In other words, people must watch the full add for it to go away.
Similarly, Anghami, based in Beirut and Dubai, has recently launched a new feature which makes sure that free users listen through an advertisement. This adds to the new technology, introduced in September 2017, helping brands and creative agencies to better connect with consumers through relevant messages and tailor them in real-time. According to Campaign Middle East, the dynamic creative technology even helps brands target consumers in real-time with personalised messages based on weather, time, location, device, and the music they’re listening to.