One of the critical sticking points of the 2023 dual strike by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA was how AI would be used in the future. Artificial intelligence is evolving at an incredible pace, ready to substitute for human interaction in a number of different spheres. While that offers an endless realm of possibilities that might help to enhance the human experience, it also creates the opportunity for people to become dependent entirely on contact with entities that are, by definition, not human. Eternal You looks at one aspect that presents astonishing promise as well as potential for abuse: communicating with those who are no longer alive via AI.
Series like Upload have imagined what it might be like to have a digital afterlife, where a person’s consciousness is uploaded into the cloud so that they can continue to exist without a body in a computer space, where their living loved ones can come to visit them. That concept was full of creativity and also featured in a comedic context, but the important caveat is that, in most cases, those who lived on in this way consented to the experience. Scraping the Internet and other records for clues to how a person might have thought or spoken and then turning that into something that can interact with people they knew is a considerable and theoretically quite disturbing step.
Eternal You doesn’t offer harsh judgments about this technology, but it does showcase several instances in which it could be intensely problematic. Consider one woman who asked her late partner where he was and then was deeply unsettled when he responded that he was in hell. One of the key figures responsible for developing and maintaining this technology cautions that this isn’t meant to be a literal pathway towards supernatural communing with the dead, but instead a way to provide comfort to those left behind. While his design may have been intentional, the commitment to accuracy and mimicry is altogether astounding and startling.
It’s a very slippery slope, and this documentary doesn’t shy away from that. A simulated virtual environment in Korea provides a mother the chance to see the seven-year-old daughter she lost again, an unimaginable opportunity that she has warmly embraced. Telling the difference between what is real and what is not can become increasingly difficult when a reunion with someone who a person didn’t expect to ever see again feels just as authentic as the last time they were there in the flesh. Remembering that an AI recreation of a loved one is artificial can be just as painful or traumatizing for those who are given peace by being able to connect with an important piece of themselves that they had previously lost.
Eternal You presents only a handful of test cases from across the globe that offer a spectrum of attitudes on the benefits of artificial intelligence extending the lives of those who are no longer physically breathing. As technology continues to evolve and, as is previewed in this documentary, learn from its existing inaccuracies and improve upon them, there will surely be ample content to make multiple follow-ups to this investigation. As an extensive survey of what is already infiltrating society, this film offers a thorough and eye-opening look at the pros and cons of something that to most still seems like science fiction but is anything but given its current capabilities. Even for those who would never even consider the idea of talking to an AI imitating a loved one, they won’t soon be able to forget what this documentary showcases.
Eternal You makes its world premiere in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.