Eternal You


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Eternal You
"If it sounds like an uncanny valley from the start, Block and Riesewieck illustrate just how bizarre and, sometimes, downright creepy this can be using genuine exchanges that have occurred." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For as long as people have been dying, their loved ones have wanted to keep in touch. A natural urge, of course, and one that connects the necromancers from ancient civilisations like the Assyrians and the Greeks through to modern spiritualists. Now, the latest documentary from Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck informs us that the medium of choice could well become a computer screen. “We are on the verge of a new era,” we are told - although this film goes on to suggest that new doesn’t necessarily mean improved.

In this absorbing and, frequently, disturbing film the pair explore how Artificial Intelligence is being taught to mimic our nearest and dearest. In its most simple form, they exist as chatbots known as “thanobots”, with programming that is extrapolated from the digital back and forths the person had when they were still among us.

“I wanted to have the last conversation I never had with him,” explains one of the film’s contributors who has given this a go. It’s certainly an understandable desire, especially for those who feel they didn’t get to say goodbye. But as this film indicates, the result of chatting to a machine that is masquerading as a someone you used to know may not be as benign as it first appears.

From a purely fiscal perspective, it's dodgy, with one of the more sceptical contributors pointing out that this is “death capitalism” as these things are both product and sales person. Imagine cancelling your subscription while your AI loved one insists “of course it’s me” or pleads not to be left alone. That’s before you even get to the ethical questions surrounding the content of what is being said.

If it sounds like an uncanny valley from the start, Block and Riesewieck illustrate just how bizarre and, sometimes, downright creepy this can be using genuine exchanges that have occurred. In one, the thanobot says, “I’m scared. I’m not used to being dead.” And what if your AI loved one told you that they weren’t in heaven at all? You may say this is all just a simulation but these are the sorts of things that could keep you awake at night. Not, at least as it’s possible to tell from those we meet here, that the creators seem to be losing much sleep about what they’re doing. In fact, one of them decided he would rather give up his wife than his AI project.

The thanobots are just the tip of the AI iceberg. Beyond them, there are those helping dead people to “speak” again and others who are working on creating virtual avatars of the dead. One shows how he can make a virtual child, modelled on his own, thankfully, very much still alive offspring cry by giving it a digital shot of cortisol. The directors also zone in on the case of South Korean woman Ji-Sung, who participated in a televised experiment to meet her dead daughter in virtual reality, right down to gloves that let her “touch” her.

Visually, this is straightforward but there are some striking moments, including a drone shot of a cemetery that makes the gravestones look almost like dots and dashes of some sort of computer code.

The film is at its most moving when it shows how these encounters with the technology actually lead to moments of human connection. Relatives laughing as they discuss the problematic side of the AI or a moment between Ji-Sung and her surviving daughter.

When the dead reckoning is done, perhaps we should let our loved ones rest in peace rather than PCs.

Reviewed on: 21 Jan 2024
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Startups are using AI to create avatars that allow relatives to talk with their loved ones after they have died. An exploration of a profound human desire and the consequences of turning the dream of immortality into a product.

Director: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

Year: 2024

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Germany, US

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