Eternal You AI death
A still image of AI "Baby X" pictured in Eternal You.

Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s eye-opening and disturbing new documentary, Eternal You, has a word of caution for everyone who plans on staying dead after they die: It may soon no longer be up to you.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Saturday night as part of the World Cinema documentary competition, Eternal You does a deep dive into the digital afterlife industry and AI companies that peddle virtual immortality.

In other words, your loved ones can now use your data to make an AI simulation of you that lives on in perpetuity after you die.

Eternal You Examines Death in the Age of Virtual Immortality

“I think we are currently experiencing a really transformational moment. For the first time, AI is penetrating areas reserved only for humans, and very intimate areas like creativity, religious beliefs, humor, empathetic approaches,” Block tells MovieMaker.

“It can imitate personalities. At the same time people’s voices can be recreated in a real way, their facial expressions, and so on. And with it, there are lots of areas provoking dangerous harm. We need to talk about that, and that’s what we would like to show with our film.”

Eternal You follows the founders and patrons of several AI startups, like YOV (You, Only Virtual), whose services involve creating a “digital representation of your personality,” according to the YOV website, that can carry on conversations on a dead person’s behalf.

The goal? To “never have to say goodbye” to those you love, and to continue to “share precious moments” together forever.

Other services don’t purport to be so sentimental, like Jason Rohrer’s AI company Project December. It simply offers to “simulate the dead” — for a fee, of course — through an AI chat bot that impersonates the deceased person’s manner of speaking based on excerpts provided from their real-life conversations. Users can get started simulating the dead for just $10.

For many customers, like the ones interviewed in the documentary, the AI versions of their dead loved ones offer a chance to say the unsaid. But the AI version of the dead person doesn’t always say what the living person wants to hear.

That was the case for Christi Angel, a deeply spiritual woman who had a negative experience when she contacted an AI version of her late first love, Cameroun, using Project December in Eternal You. Asked whether Cameroun was in heaven, the AI responded, “Nope, in hell.”

“They play with religious beliefs, not only in the sense that they corrupt the religious beliefs people formerly had, but also using religious narratives and making the AI all the more deceptive,” Riesewieck says of the programmers behind these digital afterlife startups.

“If they describe how the AI works, it often sounds like, ‘Oh, this is like a black box. We can’t influence what it does. It’s so powerful, no human can ever understand how it works.’ That’s exactly what we were told as humans about Gods and Goddesses in the past,” he adds. “If we accept this narrative, it’s not less than accepting a religious narrative. It’s accepting a new religion of AI — and we’re not sure if we should go for that.”

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The tech industry, Block warns, looks at the decline of religious beliefs in modern society as a business opportunity to be pounced on.

“More and more people are not any longer believing in religion, for example, believing in life after death with God. There is a void, a very, very deep void, that we don’t know what’s happening after we are dying. The tech industry is using this void and offering something different, something new,” Block says.

“It’s really a historical moment, we think, that our way in dealing with grief and death will change completely in the next 20 years — and this is the starting point.”

There are two ways of looking at this seemingly unavoidable eventuality, Riesewieck says — as either a blessing or a curse.

“It is of course, a huge story of salvation, to get the impression that you don’t have to mourn any longer, that the dead don’t have to be gone. You can keep on talking to them, you can keep them in your life, in your pocket, so to say. You can carry them along, and whenever you feel like, you can continue the conversation with them or even receive messages by the dead as if they were still alive, like as described by some of the founders of these companies,” he says.

“What changes so dramatically is that the finitude which was previously something so connected to being human is not something guaranteed any longer,” he adds. “Maybe the biological finitude, but the feeling of finitude, the feeling that if somebody biologically passes away that this is the end of the conversation, the end of feeling close to this person — that’s not guaranteed any longer. And in future, the more this technology advances, the better it will be in confusing people in simulating life, simulating personalities. The more people will fall for it.”

You can watch a clip from Eternal You below.

Editor’s Note: Corrects headline.