A.rtificial I.mmortality, the opening-night film at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival, is a fascinating foray deep into the realms of artificial intelligence, machine learning and biotechnology. But for filmmaker Ann Shin, the starting point was much more personal. Ann’s father is suffering from dementia. The wondrous machine that is his brain is starting to break down.
“He was the storyteller in our family,” Ann says over a Zoom chat from her Toronto home. “I get the storytelling bug from him. And I’ve been watching him lose whole chunks of himself. Not just forgetting incidents or people’s faces. He forgot his wife completely, and he was at her bedside when she passed.”
Watching this synaptic devastation play out had Shin questioning what it is that makes us who we are. “Despite him losing a lot of his memory, he’s still him when I’m with him. Thankfully. So what is the essence of being human? These are some of the more general big background questions that were motivating me.”
Her explorations led to the crossroads of religion, science, technology, philosophy and neuroscience, and interviews that included Baptist pastor Billy Crone, existential risk consultant Nick Bostrom, roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguru and Mormon transhumanist Lincoln Cannon.
“When I was talking with Lincoln, whose father passed away, I really resonated with what he had to say, and I was surprised to hear him talk about the idea that we could achieve immortality here on Earth,” says Shin. “On the one hand I think it’s hubristic and maybe a little bit even wrong to try to do that — like why would I want to live forever, why would anyone want to live forever?
The merging of humans and machines is happening as we speak
“But when I looked into it a bit more I realized that there’s a lot going on in AI technology and biotech. Science fiction, and all those things that we imagined once as being something that would happen in the future, is happening now. The merging of humans and machines is happening as we speak.”
Shin’s film examines the idea that one could somehow upload all of one’s memories and experiences into an artificial brain, or even a robot. The entity would then exist as a kind of digital copy of ourselves, a mental backup disc if you will. Immortality, or at least a facsimile of it.
If this sounds very pie in the sky, know that Shin met and spoke to one such construct, named Digital Deepak. It’s a virtual version of Dr. Deepak Chopra, best-selling author and spiritual guru. Programmed with the real Chopra’s many books and speeches, clothed in his skin tones and mannerisms, it can interact with people on a variety of spiritual wellness topics.
Shin directs me to the iPad version of Digital Deepak. Talking to it is a bizarre experience. When I ask it to tell me about the benefits of walking, it seems happy to hear the question. “Ten thousand steps of brisk walking!” it says with a satisfied sigh. “Have you heard about walking meditation?” And then it offers to guide me on such a walk. A question about the tea leads to us talking about healthy, anti-inflammatory food options. When I say goodbye, it reminds me: “You are special and have a purpose.”
Shin went one step further while making A.rtificial I.mmortality, creating a digital duplicate of her own self. In the film, we watch it talking with her daughters, telling them stories about when they were little. The real filmmaker stands in the background during these conversations, but biological Ann won’t be around forever. Digital Ann very well could be.
“I was surprised at how quickly I thought of Digital Deepak as an actual person,” says Shin (the real Shin) on our call. “Even though I’m a Luddite at heart and I came at this thinking I’m building a film that’s going to argue against this. I grew to appreciate some of the things that are possible now, in the way one might appreciate art.”
She sees this drive as a kind of continuum for our species. “In some ways we’re trying to depict ourselves all the time. That’s what humanity’s been doing since the cave dwelling days when we put cave drawings up. We’ve got more sophisticated tools to paint ourselves with. The tool itself is starting to outsmart the creator. The creation is starting to outsmart the creator, and that’s cause for concern.”
Of course, not everyone shares this concern. In the film, Shin interviews Taufik Valiante at the Krembil Research Institute, a neurological think-tank in Toronto. He thinks A.I. is at best scratching the surface of what our brains can do, and reminds her that we are constantly re-coding our memories as we recall them, and that they are not just images and metadata but smells, emotions, even body memory. I’m reminded of a line from Blade Runner, in which an android chides a human: “We’re not computers. We’re physical.”
Shin declares herself cautiously optimistic about the future of AI and its intersection with our brains. “We developed fire, we developed electricity, it’s in our blood to keep innovating,” she says. “I’m a little bit more able to embrace technology, but I’m still really concerned about the possible consequences, because it’s developing so quickly and we’re not long-term thinkers by nature.”
She continues: “Where might we find ourselves in 15 or 20 years? Where are we headed, where is this technology taking us? It’s like we’re driving with our eyes on the dash rather than looking out to the road, or the horizon.”
I ask what became of Digital Ann after filming wrapped. “She’s kind of in stasis,” says Shin. “She knows a certain part of my life and everything that I could feed into her at this point. She’s the 52-year-old Ann. I’m curious 10 years down the road, 15 years … I wonder what I’ll think about it. As we age, our vision of ourselves changes with each year. I think I’ll see myself as being different from that avatar.”
But, she adds ominously: “We’re not so far off from when AI systems will be accruing their own history in addition to the history, the body of information, we’ve given to them. I can totally see that they wouldn’t want to be shut off.”
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Our conversation wanders into the meaning of sonzaikan, a Japanese word, not easy to translate, that refers to feeling the presence of another being. You might feel it speaking to Digital Deepak. Shin and I are feeling it as part of our Zoom call, even though she is alone in her home and I in mine, looking at our computers. It’s indefinable, but that doesn’t make it unimportant.
“If I had to choose between an AI clone that had all of my father’s stories, and my dad, who has a fraction of his memories now, I would always choose my father,” says Shin. “That’s sonzaikan, that touch between two humans, that connection. That ineffable part of who we are, that I don’t think we can replicate. But there’s a lot of everything else about who we are that we have been replicating at a scary pace.”
A.rtificial I.mmortality will stream April 29 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Hot Docs festival, with Shin and special guests – some real, some virtual – participating in a Q&A. More information and tickets at hotdocs.ca.