Hot Docs 2021: A.rtificial I.mmortality

Making sentient machines, things that don’t classify as human but are autonomous, has been technology’s biggest quest. We’ve seen in for years in film:  The Terminator series, Replicas, the TV show Humans, Blade Runner, Westworld, I, Robot, and a slew of others contemplate what a robot, a machine with artificial intelligence, might do if they could think and feel, and how we would use them for our own gains. In Anne Shin’s documentary A.rtificial I.mmortality, she explores what it would be like to combine A.I. with extending your life past the natural one, to have a duplicate of yourself to comfort your loved ones. Would it be the same as our former selves, with a soul, emotions and memories? 

On her journey of discovery, Shin goes to several experts like Transhumanist pastors, neurosurgeons and scientists to find out what it would take to have an autonomous A.I. taking over after your physical body was gone. She also has a personal take on the whole thing. Her father is 78, living with dementia and wonders what it would be like to have his mind whole again or even if she can keep a part of him alive. As the sole “keeper of the family memories,” Shin’s concerns about losing that part of her legacy leads her to the world of technology.

Shin covers a lot in her quest. The experts state that evolution involves technology, transhumanists say the soul is data, and mind files containing moments of our lives are key to continuing on via A.I. With all of this, we could potentially live forever. We see a digital Deepak Chopra prototype, an avatar that can react to your questions, answer them, and lead meditation—responding so that you can have an actual relationship with it. For Chopra, it’s a chance to keep his essence alive for his family. But is it really his essence? This is what Shin explores as she looks into an A.I. avatar for herself via M.I.T. Professor Hossein Rahnama’s research in “augmented eternity.” The resulting A.I. Ann is unsettling to her, as it tracks movement and responds to her daughters and their questions. 

Ann Shin animating the face of her avatar during a facial mapping session.
Photo credit: Stephen Chung

Other questions come into play, too; ones that ask if robots can be ethical, more compassionate, empathetic – in short, a better version of human beings instead of the destructive robots of TV and film. She travels to Japan where society there easily melds tech and the ancient, blurring the lines between humans and machines. One expert, Hiroshi Ishiguro, Japan’s top robotics scientist, believes that you can find a soul or essence in robots. His robotic replica, Geminoid HI, can take place teaching his classes and has travelled the world. It’s all a part of the conversation as we move into making technology work in ways we’ve only dreamed of.

A.rtificial I.mmortality is intriguing, exploring whether we can extend the life of a loved one now gone, or ourselves, through technology and whether intelligent machines can develop autonomy. It’s also a little creepy if I’m completely honest. Avatars with dead eyes, a full robotic head and shoulders, and a modulated voice trying to express a stream of consciousness are quite unsettling as they dip well into the Uncanny Valley. There is, however, a noticeable amount of diversity in those avatars Shin investigates, so technically, it’s inclusive. It makes me wonder if they will be another category of beings that will eventually join the hierarchy of discrimination we humans are so good at, a real human vs. an A.I. being. It also brings to mind the warnings of the late physicist Stephen Hawking, his concern with A.I. and whether we will be helped or destroyed by it.

At any rate, A.rtificial I.mmortality is a fascinating look at the progress made in mimicking, preserving and extending what we know as humanity as we head into the future.

Stream it now in Canada at Hot Docs until May 9.

(Feature photo: Ann Shin with Erica the robot. Photo Credit: Iris Ng)

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