Sundance: Eternal You – AI seance?

Is there a loved one you long to talk to? Do you think a medium and a séance would work? How about the mushrooming Artificial Intelligence industry? Yes, AI is being developed to offer an opportunity to communicate with the dead (or the AI version of them, anyway). The documentary Eternal You, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, is a look at the promise and a whole lot of issues of using AI in this way.

The companies that are developing these programs (some of the ones seen in this film: Project December, YOV, Soul Machine) work with the idea that many people deal with unresolved grief. Perhaps creating a virtual AI version of the dead loved one will help them find some closure. Using technology like ChatGPT and searching social media and other online information, the AI versions can seem very much like our memories of that person. Of course, this isn’t really talking to the dead, but it may give us the chance to feel as if we have a connection.

Such an industry carries the potential to help some people, but we see that it also has great potential for abuse. One of the people in the film refers to this as “death capitalism”. These AI companies, even if they have a good motive in helping the grieving, are cashing in on people’s grief. And sometimes, the product can make things even worse.

One AI version of a dead person tells his girlfriend he is in hell. (Yeah, that helps the grieving process.) We see a grieving mother reunited with a Virtual Reality version of her young daughter in a soul-wrenching live Korean TV show. (The strong negative response from viewers made the producer understand that he’d crossed a line.)

This is a small subgenre of AI and its rapidly growing presence in our lives. But it works very well to outline the ways it can be beneficial, but carries a great deal of risk of harm. The moral and ethical implications for AI in general are echoed in this look at this segment of the industry. The growth in the AI is certainly much faster than the legal and ethical consideration can keep apace.

A still from Eternal You by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Konrad Waldmann.

Indeed, I found the moral/ethical parts of the film quite disturbing. The concept, while it may be beneficial in some cases, will definitely be used to take advantage of people at a very vulnerable time. The film doesn’t mention tying this technology into the funeral business, but if it hasn’t happened already, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until planning a funeral becomes a selling point for using one of these companies. A key ethical question that is raised is how do you bring it to an end. Will people keep buying or renewing these services because to end it would be like the person dying again?

The film didn’t really go into the psychological issues involved here. It would be good to hear from people in that field if this really would be of help to some, or if it would only serve to make matters worse for those who struggle with grief. The one bit that spoke to this mentions that the goal of this technology should be “How to lose them better, not to pretend they’re still here.”

One of the ideas that comes up a few times in the film is the idea that this is an area that people used to look to religion for. To be sure, religion has had its own issues in dealing with death, but it has brought comfort to many people over a long period of time. But with religion being less a part of our culture these days, AI, we are told, has become a modern form of transcendence.

This film gives us an opportunity to not only see this particular AI use, but to consider where the broader AI development may be leading us and what kind of ethical and moral problems it creates.

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