ST. GEORGE — What if you never have to say goodbye to a loved one who has passed on? What if you could continue to talk to your loved one as an avatar indefinitely? These are some questions posed by a movie premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival’s 40th Anniversary in Park City.

A man works on a website that allows people to have Artificial Intelligence likenesses of their loved ones who have passed on in the film “Eternal You,” location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Beetz Brothers Film Production, St. George News

“Eternal You” dives into new businesses offering artificial intelligence to create avatars of the deceased and showcases people connecting with the dead through AI. The film further grapples with how the boundary between actual and simulated life is becoming blurred; and with it, the boundary between life and death.

“We want to tell the story of a major human issue that is being revolutionized by technology,” film co-director Hans Block told St. George News.

After stumbling across a website called “Become Virtually Immortal,” the filmmakers came up with the concept in 2018, but it still seemed far-fetched. Block said he and his co-director, Moritz Riesewiek, were surprised the topic of AI in the afterlife started becoming a “serious tech trend” in the last two years.

Flash forward today and there are now digital startups from all over the world competing in the market for digital immortality.

“The film explores the promise of digital clones of people created from huge data sets that continue to exist after death. For 15 years, people have been communicating around the clock via social media and messenger services,” Block said. “We reveal all the different facets of our character in WhatsApp conversations and transmit daily streams of consciousness to our smartphones.”

Block added that companies worldwide are working on not only reading a person’s personality from intimate data such as WhatsApp but also imitating human behavior patterns with the help of AI. The film explores the company’s goal to keep human personalities alive beyond death.

“What sounds like the script of a science fiction movie is on its way to becoming reality,” Block said. “Such a crazy project has raised so many questions in our minds that we decided to look at what is currently being tested in the back rooms of the tech world.

“How exactly does this technology work? Who are the people doing everything they can to become digitally immortal? What happens to people who try to resurrect their loved ones – as digital clones? And is this even ethically responsible?”

Taking photos of a person for their Artificial Intelligence aviator, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Beetz Brothers Film Production, St. George News

The film took six years to complete, from the initial concept to the finished project. Riesewiek said that length of time illustrates how technology has changed so rapidly. When the directors discussed the idea of the film in 2018, it sounded absurd to many people.

“Hardly anyone could imagine that something like this could actually become a reality,” Riesewiek said. “Things have changed since then. The movie shows us how quickly we can adapt to such developments. We are firmly convinced that our approach to death will change radically in the coming years.”

The film also explores the psychological consequences of those who venture down this uncertain AI path, prompting the audience to consider the potential impacts on people who resurrect their deceased loved ones and talk to them. Who takes responsibility for the psychological and ethical consequences?

One character in the film is Joshua Barbeau, who longs to chat with his great love Jessica again as if she were still alive. After her digital creation, for months, he rarely leaves the house, spending day and night in conversations with his girlfriend’s simulation. He struggles to understand why people see this as a problem.

The film also introduces MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who has been researching the influence of digital technology on human relationships for decades. She says fewer people are lucky enough to grieve in the company of others. For many, digital replicas of the dead are the only way out of grief.

The “Eternal You” film shows people connecting with the dead through AI, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Beetz Brothers Film Production, St. George News

In New Zealand, another character, Mark Sagar, co-founder of Soul Machines, creates “digital humans” that not only imitate the voice and personality of humans but also look like them, develop autonomously and learn.

Sagar, who clones his baby as a prototype called Baby X, explains that the baby has a virtual nervous system and the brain sends digital hormones. The film then asks if this is the first step to creating a humanlike consciousness.

While AI critic Carl Öhman claims such representations are misleading, an experiment is already taking place in Korea where a company has created a virtual clone of a child who died at age 7 so that his mother can meet him again in virtual reality. In front of the cameras of a TV show, the mother tries to embrace the child, who appears to her in a lifelike way but she repeatedly fails to do so.

While millions of people follow the experiment online in horror, Jang Ji-sung said that the experience has helped her to overcome the nightmares of her dead child. But how healthy are such immersive encounters with the revenants of the dead?

Throughout making the film, Block and Riesewieck said their perspective changed. At first, they were interested in people who wanted to make themselves immortal. But they soon realized that it was mostly the relatives’ “impossible wish” not to lose the dying person that was the outcome of the film’s journey.

Block and Riesewieck are German writers and directors. Their debut film “The Cleaners,” which illuminates the shadow industry of digital censorship, celebrated its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.

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