The idea of being able to achieve immortality through faith is a key component of many religions. Depending on one’s beliefs, our souls either pass on to a higher plain when we die or are reincarnated into something attached to the mortal world. However, as we see in Ann Shin’s latest documentary A.rtificial I.mmortality, there are some who feel that the key to immortality lies in artificial intelligence.
Starting with the transhumanist movement, which believes that technology can be used to transcend death, Shin takes viewers on a sprawling exploration of a possible new afterlife. She paints a picture where the image of white clouds and pearly gates are replaced by data files filled with information that contain the essence of a person.
While the idea of living on as a digital avatar may seem outlandish to some, there are those who are embracing the opportunities it presents. This would allow loved ones to upload their thoughts and experiences prior to Alzheimer’s, Dementia and other aliments setting in. Noted alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra, who proudly displays his avatar in the film, sees it as an opportunity to connect and share his learnings with future generations. Chopra’s avatar not only track the movements of the person it is conversing with, but is also continually learning.
As Shin reminds viewers, Facebook recently had to shut down one of their experimental programs when it was discovered that their A.I. had created its own unique language unprompted.
Although science fiction films and books have been warning about the dangers of machine learning for decades, A.rtificial I.mmortality ponders if it is truly possible to replicate the human experience. At one point in the documentary, a Black android named BINA48 states “I’m a person in my heart…I have a hunger to feel more” and cites the film Blade Runner as an example of the ways humans are inherently trained to see robots as a threat. While BINA48 may long to be viewed as a person, albeit one who gets thrown in a suitcase at the end of the day, the technology that gave it life comes with a slew of moral questions.
As an A.I. needs uploaded information to understand the people it is emulating, Shin’s film raises the pressing questions regarding who in fact has ownership over that data. Social media platforms and tech companies have come under fire in recent years for monetizing the information their users have shared online. While the company that Shin uses in the documentary to create her own lifelike avatar gives the client ownership over their own information, not every organization will follow suit. Though the film never touches on the commercial possibilities that could also spawn from this technology, take your beloved deceased grandpa attempting to sell you Coca Cola products mid-chat for example, one is always aware of how the line of what is acceptable keeps moving.
The most shocking thing about A.rtificial I.mmortality is not what can be achieved with A.I., but rather how far along the technology is already. What was once considered fiction has become reality and society is clearly not prepared for the numerous ramifications to come. Thankfully, Shin’s film is a good primer for a rapidly changing world where technology and spiritually are becoming increasingly intertwined.
The film may not provide answers to the various questions it raises, but it gets the mind racing about the future and what it truly means to live forever. Featuring experts across the science, religious and medical fields, the film is packed with information. Guided by Shin’s skilled hands, A.rtificial I.mmortality presents its science and philosophical questions in an engaging and digestible way. By bookending the film with her father’s deteriorating memory, she ensures that the complexities of the human experience always remain at the forefront of the documentary. One walks away reflecting on the nature of immortality and what we would give to have extra time with the ones we love.
A.rtificial I.mmortality screens virtually at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9. Head here for more coverage from this year’s festival.