A woman has a text chat with her long-dead lover. A family gets to hear a deceased elder speak again. A mother gets another chance to say goodbye to her child, who died suddenly, via a digital facsimile. This isn't a preview of the next season of Black Mirror — these are all true stories from the Sundance documentary Eternal You, a fascinating and frightening dive into tech companies using AI to digitally resurrect the dead.
It's yet another way modern AI, which includes large language models like ChatGPT and similar bespoke solutions, has the potential to transform society. And as Eternal You shows, the AI afterlife industry is already having a profound effect on its early users.
The film opens on a woman having a late night text chat with a friend: "I can't believe I'm trying this, how are you?" she asks, as if she's using the internet for the first time. "I'm okay. I'm working, I'm living. I'm... scared," her friend replies. When she asks why, they reply, "I'm not used to being dead."
It turns out the woman, Christi Angel, is using the AI service Project December to chat with a simulation of her first love, who died many years ago. Angel is clearly intrigued by the technology, but as a devout Christian, she's also a bit spooked out by the prospect of raising the dead. The AI system eventually gives her some reasons to be concerned: Cameroun reveals that he's not in heaven, as she assumes. He's in hell.
"You're not in hell," she writes back. "I am in hell," the AI chatbot insists. The digital Cameroun says he's in a "dark and lonely" place, his only companions are "mostly addicts." The chatbot goes on to say he's currently haunting a treatment center and later suggests "I'll haunt you." That was enough to scare Angel and question why she was using this service in the first place.
While Angel was aware she was talking to a digital recreation of Cameroun, which was based on the information she provided to Project December, she interacted with the chatbot as if she was actually chatting with him on another plane of existence. That's a situation that many users of AI resurrection services will likely encounter: Rationality can easily overwhelm your emotional response while "speaking" with a dead loved one, even if the conversation is just occurring over text.
In the film, MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle suggests that our current understanding of how AI affects people is similar to our relationship with social media over a decade ago. That makes it a good time to ask questions about the human values and purposes it's serving, she says. If we had a clearer understanding of social media early on, maybe we could have pushed Facebook and Twitter to confront misinformation and online abuse more seriously. (Perhaps the 2016 election would have looked very different if we were aware of how other countries could weaponize social media.)
Eternal You also introduces us to Joshua Barbeau, a freelance writer who became a bit of an online celebrity in 2021 when The San Francisco Chronicle reported on his Project December chatbot: a digital version of his ex-fiancee Jessica. At first, he used Project December to chat with pre-built bots, but he eventually realized he could use the underlying technology (GPT-3, at the time) to create one with Jessica's personality. Their conversations look natural and clearly comfort Barbeau. But we're still left wondering if chatting with a facsimile of his dead fiancee is actually helping Barbeau to process his grief. It could just as easily be seen as a crutch that he feels compelled to pay for.
It's also easy to be cynical about these tools, given what we see from their creators in the film. We meet Jason Rohrer, the founder and Project December and a former indie game designer, who comes across as a typical techno-libertarian.
"I believe in personal responsibility," he says, after also saying that he's not exactly in control of the AI models behind Project December, and right before we see him nearly crash a drone into his co-founders face. "I believe that consenting adults can use that technology however they want and they're responsible for the results of whatever they're doing. It's not my job as the creator of the technology to prevent the technology from being released, because I'm afraid of what somebody might do with it."
But, as MIT's Turkle points out, reanimating the dead via AI introduces moral questions that engineers like Rohrer likely aren't considering. "You're dealing with something much more profound in the human spirit," she says. "Once something is constituted enough that you can project onto it, this life force. It's our desire to animate the world, which is human, which is part of our beauty. But we have to worry about it, we have to keep it in check. Because I think it's leading us down a dangerous path."
Another service, Hereafter.ai, lets users record stories to create a digital avatar of themselves, which family members can talk to now or after they die. One woman was eager to hear her father's voice again, but when she presented the avatar to her family the reaction was mixed. Younger folks seemed intrigue, but the older generation didn't want any part of it. "I fear that sometimes we can go too far with technology," her father's sister said. "I would just love to remember him as a person who was wonderful. I don't want my brother to appear to me. I'm satisfied knowing he's at peace, he's happy, and he's enjoying the other brothers, his mother and father."
YOV, an AI company that also focuses on personal avatars, or "Versonas," wants people to have seamless communication with their dead relatives across multiple channels. But, like all of these other digital afterlife companies, it runs into the same moral dilemmas. Is it ethical to digitally resurrect someone, especially if they didn't agree to it? Is the illusion of speaking to the dead more helpful or harmful for those left behind?
The most troubling sequence in Eternal You focuses on a South Korean mother, Jang Ji-sun, who lost her young child and remains wracked with guilt about not being able to say goodbye. She ended up being the central subject in a VR documentary, Meeting You, which was broadcast in South Korea in early 2020. She went far beyond a mere text chat: Jang donned a VR headset and confronted a startlingly realistic model of her child in virtual reality. The encounter was clearly moving for Jang, and the documentary received plenty of media attention at the time.
"There's a line between the world of the living and the world of the dead," said Kim Jong-woo, the producer behind Meeting You. "By line, I mean the fact that the dead can't come back to life. But people saw the experience as crossing that line. After all, I created an experience in which the beloved seemed to have returned. Have I made some huge mistake? Have I broken the principle of humankind? I don't know... maybe to some extent."
Eternal You paints a haunting portrait of an industry that's already revving up to capitalize on grief-stricken people. That's not exactly new; psychics and people claiming to speak to the dead have been around for our entire civilization. But through AI, we now have the ability to reanimate those lost souls. While that might be helpful for some, we're clearly not ready for a world where AI resurrection is commonplace.