Nalini Jacob-Roussety | February 14, 2022
For the first time last week, I yearned for immortality. I stared at the unread books on my shelves, the pages collecting dust; I thought about the seas I’d never cross, the countries I’d never visit; I mourned the conversations I’d never have, the things I’d never learn. (What prompted this, if not already obvious, was the university subject enrolment period. There is a peculiar kind of mortal dread that comes with planning a course with a finite number of subjects). Ann Shin, director of A.rtificial I.mmortality (2021), yearns for immorality, too. However, the filmmaker has less self-centred reasons.
For Ann Shin, an onslaught of dementia sees her father’s sense of self relegated to the recesses of time. While it may be too late for him, Shin wonders if there may be a way to preserve her own life and memories for her daughters. Thus, her reflections on her relationship with her father launch her investigation into how it might be possible to preserve the ‘self’ forever.
A deified robot. Computers creating their own language. A transhumanist religion. Brain cells growing in petri dishes. ‘Mindfiles’. These are some of the fascinating topics within the discussion of human immorality explored in A.rtificial I.mmortality, though only the final, the concept of a ‘mindfile’, is dissected in detail. As the name suggests, a ‘mindfile’ is essentially a set of data compiling a person’s life; attributes, memories, and experiences. It is created by uploading a person’s digital footprint, photographs, voice, and face into the cloud. This data, wearing the face and voice of the original person, will theoretically far outlive them.
Most of the documentary’s 74 minute runtime is dedicated to interviewing engineers, scientists and other experts on the possibility of living forever but throughout, Shin offers herself as a guinea pig to test prototypes of the more promising technologies. A monologue-montage sees Shin collecting distant memories from dusty cupboards. Photo albums and stories of her daughters are uploaded into the cloud and used to create a database of herself. Her daughters stand before a screen and ask, “when is my birthday?”. A digital avatar with an unnervingly familiar face answers in their mother’s voice.
Sure, the avatar version of Shin might be theoretically immortal, but the ‘artificial’ element of this immortality cannot be overlooked. As Dr Taufik Valiante rightly points out, human memories are multimodal, and inextricable from our sense organs. To have uploaded memories of one’s life is not necessarily to have uploaded the ‘self’. Shin’s avatar on the screen is simply that: an avatar. Really, what the documentary explores is the immortality of one’s digital footprint, and this is not a new idea. As such, I couldn’t help but feel cheated by Shin’s opening lines: “What if I told you, you didn’t have to die?”
I wish A.rtificial I.mmortality had focused its exploration on the pressing philosophical issues that arise from the notion of a post-biological, Black-Mirror-esque future. How will holding on to digital versions of our loved ones long after they have passed impact the human psyche? How will the creation of this AI contribute to the classist demarcations already formed by technological inequalities?
The intersection of science and faith is another glossed-over, but nonetheless captivating discussion point in the documentary. The transhumanist religion, Terasem, is explored only in minute detail, as is the Christian Transhumanist Association. I couldn’t help but struggle to reconcile the fundamental motivations behind Christian faith with the idea of immortality, and I would have loved to see the interviews delve further into these issues. The reality is that AI may spell an entirely changed future for human faith. The documentary provides a brief but startling visualisation of this future wherein a robot delivering Buddhist sermons wisely reminds its audience that it is not burdened by the individualistic ‘I’, and as such, perhaps lives even closer to Buddhist teachings than humans ever will. It is a fascinating and simultaneously terrifying prospect for global religions that is disappointingly only giving surface level engagement.
The documentary’s various mini-segments are a well-curated selection of issues that provide a solid introductory lens into the state of immortality and AI. With a refreshingly hopeful tone, the film explores the human yearning to extend one’s life, if not for one’s own sake, then for the sake of those left behind. However, the promises made in A.rtificial I.mmortality’s trailer act much like the opening page of a syllabus, promising a fascinating class that unfortunately fails to meet expectations throughout the semester. I think the lack of depth in the documentary’s segments constitutes its short-fallings, but the overall ideas and sentiments raised are ones I won’t forget.
A.rtificial I.mmortality is part of the Transitions Film Festival’s 2022 program, “VISIONS FOR A BETTER WORLD” available 18th February – 13th March 2022
Purchase tickets for in-person and online screenings at http://www.transitionsfilmfestival.com/
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