6 scariest business trends that belong in a Black Mirror episode

From dark kitchens to virtual cashiers, 2024's tech trends have more than a touch of the dystopian about them.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young
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Remember when new technology was exciting, not terrifying? Emerging technologies, such as industrial robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, are advancing at a rapid pace, leading to a raft of new AI startups making waves among investors.

Some, like ChatGPT, have quickly become part of the office furniture. Others feel more creepy than creative; the kind of dystopian inventions that you’d expect to find in a Black Mirror episode, not the UK high street.

Below, we’ll break down the seven weirdest new businesses and trends that are coming to the UK this year. Bunkers at the ready, folks.

1. London’s ultimate dark kitchen

Dark Kitchen (1)

Credit: Dowen Farmer Architects / Planning application

It looks like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But this monolith is actually an example of a ‘dark kitchen’ or ‘ghost kitchen’ (take your pick, they both sound horrifying). With planning permission now granted, it will host a proposed 274 dark kitchens on site at the suitably futuristic-named ‘Portal Way.’

Dark kitchens are restaurants that sell meals exclusively through delivery. This particular building is proposed for construction in Acton, west London, and will boast a small food court area, too. However, dark kitchens are typically devoid of front of house staff or in-person customers, and operate entirely online.

Mass-produced meals will be distributed via quick delivery services like Uber Eats, while giant extractor fans fitted with electrostatic precipitators will be installed to prevent smells from escaping. If it weren’t for the obelisk-like addition to the Acton skyline, locals might barely know this 12-storey fast-food farm exists.

2. Virtual cashiers

Founder Brett Goldstein went viral earlier this month when he shared an image on X of himself being served at a fried chicken joint in New York. The reason? His server was based 8,500 miles away in the Philippines, where she was controlling the till from her bedroom.

The company behind this Hal-esque helper is Happy Cashier. In an interview with Fortune, a spokesperson for the business confirmed that it hires employees from the Philippines to video call into restaurants, so they can serve customers without having to interact with them.

There is a business case. UK hospitality firms have struggled to pay labour wages in the face of diminishing profit margins and a hiked living wage. By hiring remote staff, they can outsource their labour costs to cheaper overseas talent.

Still: is it ethical to pay foreign workers substantially less than the local minimum wage? How will the technology impact hospitality staff? And do customers want to be served over a video call when they’re already suffering through Zoom fatigue at work?

The technology is evolving faster than we can address these concerns, and virtual handlers could be beaming into the UK sooner than you think.

3. Robot skin

Touchlab (1)

One common criticism levied against Artificial Intelligence is that robots are ‘missing that human touch’. Less Orwellian, more hair-raising, Touchlab is a Scottish-based startup that’s aiming to fix that with its intelligent e-skin technology.

Founded in 2018 by Dr Zaki Hussein, Touchlab’s invention means that robots can feel pressure, location, and direction; all in real-time. This could help to develop pioneering cross-sector solutions in everything from healthcare to warehouse and fulfilment services.

It may sound like the uncanny valley brought to life. But, social media apps like Snapchat mean we’re now used to seeing overly filtered, un-human looking skin online (TikTok’s latest Cyborg Skin make-up trend might be a direct response to that confusion). Perhaps e-skin won’t feel too unfamiliar to consumers.

4. Neuralink


Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink successfully installed a sci-fi favourite, the brain chip, into a human test subject. Known as Telepathy, the chip has been charmingly dubbed the “fitbit in your skull” and is designed to create a direct brain-computer connection.

There is plenty to celebrate here. Ever since it was founded back in 2016, Neuralink’s mission has been to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs, like quadriplegia or paralysis. Its successful test run signals an important milestone towards reaching that goal.

But if hacking a computer is scary then hacking someone’s brain directly could be terrifying. Cybersecurity experts have even raised concerns about mind control. Who owns your thoughts if they can be translated into data?

At its core, Telepathy is a medical device. Robust security measures are required to ensure it is deployed safely. Given how poorly-regulated the AI sector currently is – and the chaotic leadership style of Elon Musk – this looks like wishful thinking for Neuralink.

5. Voice replication AI

AI technology is progressing so quickly, even those behind it are at times trying to slow its development. We saw this earlier this week, when OpenAI delayed its as-yet-unreleased voice cloning tool. The decision – which was likely part-truth, part-PR stunt – was supposedly due to fears it could be ‘misused’ in the current election year.

A small group of “trusted” organisations were given access to the tool, which can accurately mimic a human speaker using only 15 seconds of audio. It can also distort the voice to discuss topics in multiple languages.

OpenAI is unlikely to hold off release of the tool for too long. Once out there, the tool’s generative potential could see it used to spew buckets of fake and harmful content, adding to a cesspit of bots and trolls that have been found to populate social media sites like X.

Others will want in on the voice cloning action, of course. Amazon previously considered rolling out a voice replication feature to its virtual assistant, Alexa that would allow users to hear from deceased relatives. The OpenAI announcement could invite Amazon to revive the idea.

Innovative startups are working to resolve potential problems. Unitary.ai, for example, analyses three billion images a day to combat online disinformation. But AI content is hard enough to verify. That will only become more difficult when it can literally argue back.

6. AI-generated advertising


Credit: Chris Alsikkan/X

We had as many laughs as the next person about the confectionary-led car crash that was Glasgow’s ‘Willy Wonka’ experience. Advertised using AI-generated gibberish, visitors who were promised life-sized lollipops levels of fun were instead met by what can only be described as the Pound Shop wonderland.

The ethics of machine learning to generate business names has already been called into question. Applying it to misleading marketing materials is even more alarming.

Still, while Scotland’s Wonka legacy was undoubtedly a cultural first (it’s even spawned a meme-inspired horror film) it likely won’t be the last AI imagery nightmare you see this year.

Amazon has already rolled out a tool to create machine-generated product imagery. What’s next: false, smiling coworkers pictured in job adverts? Cartoonish property listings? If we’re not careful, we could find ourselves stuck in a world of pure AI imagination.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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