Have you ever thought about living forever? Failing that, how about storing your memories and life experiences into a hard drive and then uploading them so future generations in your family can know you more intimately?
These are just two of the (very, very deep) questions Toronto documentary filmmaker Ann Shin explores in her latest movie, A.rtificial I.mmortality, which is playing on opening night at the all-virtual 2021 Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival.
Inspired by the aging of her father — currently in a care facility suffering from dementia — Shin found herself at a loss when trying to press him for information about her deceased mother, or how it felt for her parents when they were starting their family. There were huge gaps in her own personal history, and she didn’t want that same misfortune to befall her own children, so she set out to see what options exist. Was it possible to keep a little piece of her father, along with his memories and experiences, forever? What about herself? Could she live on into infinity?
“When my father developed dementia, I realized we were losing him in bits and pieces,” Shin says. “I wondered, what if we had captured his memories in an AI clone before his memory started going? What would it be like for us all to have AI clones — a way for us to be part of our families’ lives even after we die?”
Shin found many options out there, some of them advanced beyond our wildest sci-fi dreams.
Indian-American author and alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra is featured and interviewed in A.rtificial I.mmortality, and we’re introduced to a “digital Deepak.” Chopra is in the midst of having his own “A.I. mind twin” created; that is, his memories, mannerisms and his essence of “being” are transferred into a “mind file” and embedded in his digital self for people to access once he’s dead and gone. (Yes, there’s even an app for that.)
In a nutshell, Chopra is trying to ensure that he and his teachings will never really die. While it’s hard to deny the possibilities of this method of extending existence, there’s something inherently creepy and unnatural about it.
Along her cinematic journey, Shin encounters many androids and human-like robots — machinery implanted or infused with human controls or memories. Despite how “cool” they are, or futuristic-looking, the filmmaker almost always recoils when she reaches out to touch them. One handshake is particularly disturbing to Shin, knowing that the robot extending its human-resembling hand is doing so based on its own “memory” of what to do in certain situations.
Even Digital Deepak doesn’t really seem like the real-life Chopra. Something in the avatar’s shiny eyes is off-putting, even disturbing.
Chopra is not the only one, not by a long shot. Shin explores the phenomenon of searching for eternity, and there is no shortage of technological geniuses out there looking for the answer. And these are the ones we know about.
Among others, CEOs like Martine Rothblatt, inventor of Sirius XM, is developing Bina 48, a clone AI robot of her real-life wife, Bina, and director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory Hiroshi Ishiguro is developing his own uncannily realistic clone, Geminoid. (In some instances, audiences couldn’t tell the two apart, they’re that much alike.)
“Visions of the apocalypse have haunted us through millennia. In the past, we turned to God for the promise of salvation and eternal life, but in the 21st century we live in the digital realm and look to technology for the answers,” Shin says. “As we develop more powerful AI systems, are we creating an AI supreme being in our own likeness? What happens if the creation outsmarts the creator?”
A.rtificial I.mmortality does its best to answer these questions, but because of the philosophical complexity of the subject matter and each person’s diverse take on the topic, there can never be one “correct” viewpoint.
Juxtaposed with shots of space and computer code, the movie at once understands both the beauty and enormity of the possibilities. Maybe one day we’ll have vast hard drives filled with virtual versions of our loved ones, easily accessible with the push of a button. For now, we’ll just have to be satisfied with the idea of it, and wait for the technology to catch up with the dream.