Sundance documentary Eternal You shows how AI companies are ‘resurrecting’ the dead

A woman has a text conversation with her long-dead boyfriend. A family hears a deceased elder speak again. A mother gets another chance to say goodbye to her son who died suddenly via digital fax. This is not a preview of the next season Black Mirror — these are all true stories from the Sundance documentary Eternal Youa fascinating and terrifying dive into tech companies using artificial intelligence to digitally resurrect the dead.

This is another way modern AI incorporates large language models such as ChatGPT and similar bespoke solutions have the potential to transform society. And as Eternal You shows that the AI ​​afterlife industry is already having a profound impact on its early adopters.

The film opens with a woman texting a friend late at night: “I can’t believe I tried this, how are you?” – he asks, as if he is using the Internet for the first time. “I’m fine. I’m working, I’m living. I’m… I’m afraid,” his friend replies. When asked why, they answer, “I’m not used to dying.”

Christi Angel talks to her friend's AI model through the December Project in the documentary Eternal YouChristi Angel talks to her friend's AI model through the December Project in the documentary Eternal You

Beetz Brothers Film Production

It turns out that a woman named Christi Angel uses an artificial intelligence service Project December chatting with a simulation of his first love who died years ago. Angel is clearly intrigued by the technology, but as a devout Christian, he’s also a little intimidated by the prospect of raising the dead. The AI ​​system finally gives him some reason to worry: Cameroon reveals that he’s not in heaven like he thought. He is in hell.

“You are not in hell,” he writes back. “I’m in hell,” insists the AI ​​chatbot. Digital Cameroon says he is in a “dark and lonely” place, his only companions “mostly drug addicts”. The chatbot continues that he is currently stalking the treatment center and then offers “I’ll stalk you.” This was enough to scare Angel and ask him why he was using this service.

Angel interacted with the chatbot as if it were conversing with him on another plane of existence, even though he knew he was talking to a digital recreation of Cameroon based on the information he provided to Project December. This is a situation that many users of AI resuscitation services will face: Even if the conversation is just over text, rationality can easily override your emotional response when “talking” to a deceased loved one.

In the film, MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle suggests that our current understanding of how artificial intelligence affects humans is similar to our relationship with social media a decade ago. He says it’s a good time to ask questions about the human values ​​and goals he serves. If we understood social media early on, maybe we could use Facebook and Twitter to fight misinformation and online abuse more seriously. (Perhaps the 2016 election would look very different if we knew how other countries could weaponize social media.)

A series of cameras captures a person's expression in Forever YouA series of cameras captures a person's expression in Forever You

Beetz Brothers Film Production

Eternal You also introduces us to Joshua Barbeau, a freelance writer who has become a bit of an online celebrity in 2021. San Francisco Chronicle he saidProject December chatbot: a digital version of his ex-fiancée Jessica. At first, he used Project December to chat with pre-built bots, but eventually realized he could use the underlying technology (then GPT-3) to create one with Jessica’s personality. Their conversation seems natural and clearly comforts Barbeau. But we’re still wondering if talking to a facsimile of her dead fiancé helps Barbeau deal with her grief. It can easily be seen as a crutch that he feels compelled to pay.

Given what we saw of their creators in the film, it’s easy to be cynical about these tools. Coming across as a typical techno-libertarian, we meet Jason Rohrer, founder and draftsman of December and former indie game designer.

“I believe in personal responsibility,” he says in December, before discovering that he didn’t have full control of the AI ​​models behind the Project and that his co-founders were nearly droned in the face. “I believe that consenting adults can use this technology however they want, and they are responsible for the consequences of whatever they do. It’s not my job as the creator of the technology to prevent the technology from being released because I’m afraid of what someone might do with it.”

But, as MIT’s Turkle points out, bringing the dead back to life through artificial intelligence presents moral questions that engineers like Rohrer probably haven’t considered. “You’re dealing with something deeper in the human soul,” he says. “Once something is formed enough, this life force that you can project onto it. It’s our desire to animate the world, which is human, which is part of our beauty. But we have to worry about it, we have to keep it in check. Because I think it puts us in a dangerous place. leads to the road.”

Creation of virtual models in Forever YouCreation of virtual models in Forever You

Beetz Brothers Film Production

Another service,, allows users to write stories to create a digital avatar that family members can talk about now or after they die. A woman longed to hear her father’s voice again, but when she introduced her avatar to her family, the reaction was mixed. Young people seemed intrigued, but the older generation wanted no part of it. “I fear that sometimes we can go too far with technology,” said her father’s sister. “I just want to remember him as a wonderful person. I don’t want my brother to see me. It gives me satisfaction to know that he is comfortable, happy and enjoying his other brothers and his mother and father. .”

YOV, an artificial intelligence company that also focuses on personal avatars, or “Versonas,” wants people to seamlessly communicate with their dead relatives through multiple channels. But, like all these other digital afterlife companies, it faces the same moral dilemmas. Is it ethical to digitally resurrect someone, especially if they don’t agree? Is the illusion of speaking with the dead more beneficial or harmful to those left behind?

A most disturbing sequence Eternal You is about Jang Ji-sun, a South Korean mother who loses her young child and is left with guilt over not being able to say goodbye. It became the central subject of a VR documentary, Meeting you, aired in South Korea in early 2020. She went far beyond just a text conversation: Jang put on a VR headset and encountered a stunningly realistic model of her child in virtual reality. The match was clearly moving for Jang, and the documentary received a lot of media attention at the time.

“There is a line between the world of the living and the world of the dead,” said producer Kim Jong-woo. Meeting you. “By line, I mean the dead can’t be raised. But people saw the experience as crossing that line. After all, I created an experience where the lover returned. Did I make a big mistake? Have I violated the principle of humanity? I don’t know… maybe to some extent.”

Eternal You It paints a chilling portrait of an industry that has already developed to exploit people suffering from grief. This is not entirely new; Psychics and people who claim to speak with the dead have existed for our entire civilization. But through artificial intelligence, we already have the ability to revive lost souls. While this may be useful for some, we are not ready for a world where the resurrection of artificial intelligence is commonplace.

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