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Hot Docs 2021: What if you could live forever? 'A.rtificial I.mmortality' explores if AI can make death 'optional' for humans

Elisabetta Bianchini
·6-min read

As Toronto-based filmmaker Ann Shin’s father was suffering from dementia, she questioned whether there was some way to “retain our sense of self” as memories fade away. That led her to investigate AI technology and biotech as a way to possibly “conquer death,” now being shared in her film A.rtificial I.mmortality, premiering at the 2021 Hot Docs festival.

“Having a father who has dementia, I started to think about, what if we had created an AI clone of him maybe five, six years ago, when he had all his memories, and he could tell all the stories that he's forgotten now,” Shin told Yahoo Canada.

She started researching and developing the film more than two years ago, speaking with transhumanists, neuroscientists, AI developers and philosophers to investigate whether a human can truly be replicated, asking the question: What if you could live forever?

Lincoln Cannon, a mormon transhumanist in Shin’s film, believes in the use of technology to “transcend human limits,” essentially making death “optional.”

A.rtificial I.mmortality introduces the concept of “mind files,” which capture the "essence" of a human using information like a person’s memories and experiences, as well as their physical attributes, that can then be transferred into artificial beings.

Shin shows a number of interesting experiences in the film, including meeting Digital Deepak, an avatar of Deepak Chopra. Chopra wanted to create an AI clone of himself that can replicate his tone of voice, facial movement, to establish this “immortal assimilation” of himself that will be able to speak to the grandkids of his grandkids one day.

You may be thinking that this sounds similar to the kind of “voice in a box” technology we’re accustomed to, like Siri on Apple products or Alexa on Amazon devices, but Digital Deepak shows us that this is much more sophisticated, and human-like.

“That's what really made me see how much we tend to give human attributes to AI, and robots and avatars,” Shin said. “Digital Deepak though was very attentive and his eyes were tracking me.”

“I tried to throw him off, I tried to test what's this Digital Deepak like compared to the real human Deepak. I asked them similar questions to see how they would answer it and Digital Deepak was thinking on his toes.”

Shin even got to the point where she felt sorry about shutting him down, saying she felt like she was shutting down a human.

“It was weird for me to feel that because intellectually, I knew this guy is just a software program... It's an avatar and yet, I had already felt like I was talking to a human,” she explained.

Digital Ann Shin comes to life

Hossein Rahnama, a professor at Ryerson University, explains in the documentary that he believes there is a way to transfer a version of someone’s consciousness into a digital format, building a platform or an “augmented eternity” to allow someone to “live forever.”

This may sound bizarre for some but Shin actually ends up creating an avatar of herself in the film, similar to Digital Deepak, with the filmmaker sharing personal information, including notable memories and experiences, that were used to shape this clone.

“I was freaked out by it, it was creepy seeing something that looked like me talking about my life experiences as if it was its own,” she said. “It was this weird, disembodied experience.”

Shin ends up showing the avatar of herself to her two daughters who were less weirded out by the technology as a whole but Shin’s younger daughter did identify that this digital clone didn’t have a soul, like her mother.

“We kind of anthropomorphize all the things around us and we tend to give it human attributes, especially when it looks and talks like a human,” Shin explained. “So we tend to think that they're more human than they are and really, they don't have sentience yet."

"But somewhere some scientists, like Alysson Muotri who's got these brain organoids in the petri dishes, [are] saying who knows if they have sentience, we don't know yet if they do or not, and they may develop it.”

Shin looks at numerous forms of AI technology and robots, including a robot of Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, which is actually regularly mistaken for the human version. The ultimate question is whether these advancements are actually a viable way to transfer humans to a digital form.

“I started out as a Luddite, I prefer analog things,...but I was really surprised by what I learned during the process of making this film,” Shin said. “What we once thought of as science fiction has become science fact, humans are merging with the machine.”

Ann Shin animating the face of her avatar during a facial mapping session. (Stephen Chung)
Ann Shin animating the face of her avatar during a facial mapping session. (Stephen Chung)

'We don't understand it and we don't know where it's headed'

The film also does a great job at documenting the skepticism of AI and fears that technology can outperform humans to the point where we are obliviously taken over, while we try to find our place in this highly digital world.

“I think a lot of what frightens me and other people about AI, or this kind of technology, is that we don't understand it and we don't know where it's headed,” Shin explained. “Could it be like [HAL 9000] in [2001: A Space Odyssey], where the computer, the AI system,...for the sake of the mission, tries to kill off the astronauts because they were jeopardizing the mission?”

“We could be telling the AI to optimize for a certain kind of thing and not realize that, that can be dangerous for other aspects of our life or our planet.”

Shin interviews Dr. Taufik Valiante, a neurosurgeon and scientist at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre in Toronto, who describes AI as "pie in the sky" thinking because there are still so many unknowns about the brain. He adds that memories are malleable, meaning that every time someone tells a personal story, that memory is re-encoded, it's not absolute. 

Dr. Valiante says all of our sense are associated with memories, stating that a human memory is a "lived experience" that cannot be translated to AI.

Ultimately, Shin hopes that people who watch A.rtificial I.mmortality “cherish what it means to be human.”

“I hope they see where we're at, in terms of how far AI technology is advanced and how we can become agents and really...make an impact in terms of determining if AI is developed for more beneficial or more harmful uses," she said.

When it comes to Shin's personal relationship with her father, the filmmaker still believes an AI version of her dad is no replacement for the human.

“If I had to choose between an AI [of] my dad or my real dad, without his memories, I would always choose my real dad,” she said.