Up until 2007, Facebook deleted the profiles of any deceased persons but in the aftermath of the shootings in the 2007 Virginia Tech University massacre, many students at the school organized a grassroots campaign to persuade the social media giant to reverse its policy. Students talked about how they turned to Facebook to grieve those who died during the massacre.
A 2015 research article published in Mortality journal focused on how social media had become an outlet for people to grieve loved ones who died by suicide and to keep the memories of the deceased alive. One woman “explained how her grief was eased by Facebook demonstrating the enhanced affordances of online life for ‘keeping the dead alive’. At the same time, she acknowledges the opposite effect that reminders and memories on Facebook has had on her parent: ‘Ironically … my mum, she won’t go on the page because of that, she can’t bear to look at a photograph of him … so there’s the flipside’.
In the superb and spellbinding Eternal You, which is in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, directors Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck cast the appropriate mix of emotions. This ranges from poignant empathy for those seeking closure in their grief to alarm about the potentially frightening psychological ramifications of engaging with sophisticated computer simulations and avatars which convince people that it is possible to ‘keep the dead alive.’
Eternal You is incisive in its exceptionally well-crafted resolve to bring the most important considerations to light, without blindly accepting the potential value or benefit of such technologies. Interspersed with three central stories in the film that combine to form a potent emotional apex in the film are questions about the ethics, social ramifications, concerns about exploitation and our collective vulnerabilities in wondering if immortality could ever become possible. It’s a discussion that many tech startups and advocates have often pushed down the road. Rather, they seek to capitalize on the accelerating pace of developments in artificial intelligence, ChatGPT tools and other sophisticated forms of digital simulation.
The filmmakers are well versed in these broader questions that such technology raises. Their previous documentary, The Cleaners (2018) explored how content moderators hired by digital media tech giants manage to control what viewers see online. Incidentally, the Eternal You credits include Impact Partners Film and executive producer Geralyn Dreyfous as well as fiscal sponsorship from the Utah Film Center, of which Dreyfous was a cofounder.
In an interview with both directors for The Utah Review, Riesewieck said they sought to understand what impact this could have on humans mentally, given that both directors were skeptical from the outset of the project. “It seemed so absurd to us to talk to a computer simulation and to find comfort in that,” he added. “It seemed like we couldn’t imagine that at all but the more people we met who were interested in this technology and who tried it out, the more we understood how clever this AI can be to trick people into thinking they’re still there.”
Block amplified his colleague’s words. “These needs arise from a certain zeitgeist and a certain ideology and in this film our greatest interest was why people can’t let their dead loved ones go and why they long to be able to live on with them here on earth to remain in conversations with them,” he said, “and why humans humanize machines against better judgment. These questions were very important at the beginning.”
When they started the project six years ago and pitched it to producers and to other filmmakers, the response was it sounded too unrealistic and that it felt more like a script for a science fiction movie. “No one could ever even imagine that this will be the reality in 2024,” Block said. “But we quickly adapted to these technological developments. When Facebook first had these condolence spaces for everyone, it felt a bit uncomfortable. Nowadays, it is perfectly normal, so it shows how quickly we adapt and how quickly it normalizes that technologies serve as a cultural element for how we deal with death.”
The three individuals featured in the film reflect these sentiments. Joshua uses the service most extensively of the group, making it a routine to share his daily happenings with the digital avatar of his first love. In Korea, Jang Ji-Sung meets the virtual reality clone of her deceased seven-year-old daughter, which produces some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments. Jang’s encounter occurs on a reality television show and she tries unsuccessfully to embrace her daughter. To viewers, it smacks of a disturbing atmosphere bordering on exploitation but the mother later says the experience actually helped her because she no longer has nightmares about her child.
Meanwhile, Christi’s encounter is the most harrowing. When she is communicating with Cameroun’s computer simulation, he reveals that he is in hell. It stuns her so deeply that she immediately ends the conversation. But, later she decides to log on again and is relieved when the message comes through that he is no longer in hell. At that point, Christi says she will periodically check in online to see how he’s doing.
Riesewieck said that it seems absolutely incredulous that one would be willing to believe when a computer simulation tells them that the person is in hell. “But, it becomes so much more credible if you understand the very nature of how these AI bots work,” he explained, “by using patterns of the deceased, by using very personal aspects of their personality, by mentioning names of friends, and by mimicking the way a deceased person expressed themselves. It can seem very credible in the moment.”
Riesewieck added, “It’s very understandable that if you didn’t get the chance to properly say good-bye to somebody and you deeply long for having this one conversation you didn’t get to have, you would try it out. And, I mean, why not?”
In fact, Christi mentions this in the film. Riesewieck said it abuses a person’s vulnerability, as the effect can be like a cliffhanger episode in a television series. “You want to know the answer to that question and you keep on chatting and that is what makes it so addictive on one hand but also makes it so dangerous on the other,” he explained. “That people can easily give up their real social contacts and decide rather to focus on a seeming being on the other side which is actually not there. It’s still just a simulation.”
The concern is that many people are tempted to believe that social media outlets and digital simulations are, by themselves, sufficient enough to cope with bereavement. However, the fact is that a comprehensive way of dealing with grief and loss sometimes requires social counseling and mental health support in real-time settings. Riesewieck noted that loneliness and the absence of tight-knit social communities are common in many western societies. “They don’t feel that they have a better solution than to turn to those AI products actually offering them a story of salvation, which is you don’t have to accept that somebody is gone. You can pretend the person is still there,” he said.
Another unsettling scene is about digital humans being created by Soul Machines in New Zealand. Mark Sagar, one of the cofounders, envisions it as a major step toward achieving consciousness that resembles human capacity as closely as possible. The digital simulation is not just mimicking one’s voice and personality but capable of replicating the individual’s appearance to an eerie sort of precision. Baby X, which he designed from his own infant child as a prototype, has a virtual nervous system and brain that can emit digital hormones.
Indeed, in more than one instance in Eternal You, one might be triggered to recall the 1982 film Blade Runner. In the film, Rachael, one of the replicants discovers that the memories she had of her childhood, her mother and relations were actually those of her creator, Eldon Tyrell. Deckard, the Blade Runner who is tasked with hunting down the rogue replicants, also falls in love with Rachael. At one point, Deckard says, “Replicants are like any other machine: They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.”
In the documentary, Riesewieck and Block turn to several critics, including AI ethicist Carl Öhman, who calls out prototypes such as Baby X and the virtual clone of the Korean mother’s seven-year-old daughter as misleading.
Block added that Öhman keenly understands what these startup firms are hoping to achieve. “As he said, these products are the perfect salesmen for themselves because if you talked to someone who passed away physically, to risk being locked out of a service like this, it’s like a second death has happened,” he explained. “It profits from the narratives that have been in popular culture for many years, with films, fiction and stories. We are already used to these ideas and this has laid the groundwork for the companies which can now profit from us, by believing in the possibilities of these narratives.”
Riesewieck reinforced his colleague’s words, explaining that questions of ethics and responsibility must be at the center of the debate with society and not left solely to giants such as Google, Amazon or Microsoft and their tech developers and programmers.
Both directors talked about how they did not anticipate how seductive such a narrative could become, when they started working on the film. “All of us, in a way, suffer from a kind of transcendental homelessness where actually religions no longer have that meaning for us and we really don’t believe anymore the idea of an afterlife,” Block said, reiterating a theme that was evident in their words throughout the interview. “This creates a big void and it is difficult to deal with the finitude of our lives and those of our loved ones who have passed. If there is no story of salvation, what makes these companies so powerful and the products they offer is a new form of salvation here on Earth. We don’t have to accept the fact that someone is gone any longer and we can just keep on talking to them. We believe that it is not only a minority who can fall for that. Actually all of us could be in a situation where we would love to try that out.”
For more information about films and tickets, see the Sundance Film Festival website.