What if you could talk to the dead… not just to them, but with them? Imagine you could text them as casually as you once did, and they’d text back.
What was once the stuff of séances and Ouija boards has gotten a high-tech makeover through artificial intelligence. Chatbots can scan the dead’s social media profiles and texts, and then simulate the departed’s way of speaking to create new messages. The documentary Eternal You probes into this intriguing use of AI, speaking with the users who find comfort in such apps, critics who see danger in them, and the tech developers who are brashly pushing the boundaries.
Directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, Eternal You offers audiences a tour of the emerging discourse of death capitalism and AI. Because, of course, like the old-school clairvoyants, these tech developers charge to “talk” to the dead. It’s easy to sneer or be cynical at the concept, especially when the tech bros behind it out themselves as callous creators — like when Project December cofounder Jason Rohrer crassly cackles over a dubious user getting called a “fucking bitch” by his chatbot. But Eternal You also reveals how a major gap in how Western civilizations deal with grief leaves a hole that needs filling. And that need can mean grim things for the future of AI afterlife.
Can you text the dead? Project December says, Why not?
Eternal You begins with Christi Angel, a grieving Christian woman desperate to reconnect with her lost love. She says that Project December, which promises it can “simulate the dead,” comforts her by giving her a space to feel connected to her deceased partner once more. Another user, Joshua Barbeau, whose high school sweetheart died before graduation, echoes this enthusiasm. He says the texts he receives include emoji and a cheekiness that was true to the spirit of his late girlfriend. And if it brings them comfort, one might ask, what’s the harm?
Block and Riesewieck balance these testimonials with interview subjects who are less emotionally compromised in their relation to such AI. Tech reporter Sara M. Watson cautions that our understanding of AI is still in the early stages, so unleashing such unregulated apps upon people in potentially serious distress could be hazardous. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor with degrees in sociology and psychology, likewise warns about how these echoes of a dead person might feel comforting in the short-term, but could prove addictive as well as an obstacle to processing the loss. How can you say goodbye to someone if they’re always just a text away?
Eternal You suggests such an addiction isn’t a glitch but a feature for the founders of these tech start-ups, as they seek financial gain. In a Western world immune to discomfort, such an app seems an easy answer — and an easy sell.
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Eternal You exposes the tech bros behind AI resurrections.
Let’s go back to Angel. After extolling the virtues of Project December, this user admits that sometimes the messages she gets from the simulated dead are disturbing. In one harrowing moment, her lover texted that he was in hell. Then she received a notification reminding her to re-up her subscription to continue the conversation. It’s hard to take Project December founder Jason Rohrer’s claims of there being “magic” in the machine seriously once the nakedly mercenary model of its use is exposed. But his isn’t the only play emerging.
Elsewhere, Resemble AI offers a service that can use recordings of someone’s voice to create new audio. Something similar has been done in bio-documentaries like Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain and The Andy Warhol Diaries, allowing the dead subjects to provide posthumous voiceovers. While Eternal You explores how users feels about personal interactions with such tech, the doc doesn’t probe the issue of consent. Essentially, who has the right to make the dead say something they never said in real life?
AI voice replicas are getting out of hand — that’s why lawmakers are pushing the ‘No Fakes’ Act
Brushing off such ethical quandaries is Justin Harrison, founder of YOV (You, Only Virtual), a start-up that declares on its website, “You Never Have to Say Goodbye.” His product, “versona,” promises virtual immortality, creating an avatar based on submitted data. Pressed about who “owns” the data — essentially the identity of the dead — Harrison answers with a legal talking point, skirting the broader moral issue.
Like Rorher, Harrison offers a cringe moment or two, including one where he brags about his divorce as part of his self-mythologizing. Through such moments, the documentarians subtly ask the viewer, “Would you trust this guy with your identity — your virtual legacy?”
God, to such men, is an outdated construct. When questioned about the pain their virtual versions of the dead may cause, Rorher throws the idea back at his users, saying they have a “personal responsibility” to use tech safely. Eternal You then cuts to Rorher haphazardly flying a drone dangerously close to his business partner’s face, a masterstroke in illustrating his hypocrisy and moral emptiness. He laughs at the near face-shredding mishap, and the audience is left to shudder.
Virtual children bring stinging heartbreak to Eternal You.
Elsewhere, the doc shows how one inventor has made a virtual baby modeled after his own child, who is alive. Meanwhile, the South Korean TV show Meeting You invites mourning mother Jang Ji-sung to visit a custom-made virtual reality in which her dead daughter frolics and calls her name. No one could blame this parent for holding out her arms to the virtual child, grateful for a second chance to say the goodbye she didn’t get in their lives together. But what does it mean when this private moment is made for public consumption?
In exploring the landscape of death and tech, Eternal You wisely offers questions but few answers. It’s a cautionary tale, warning audiences to beware of those selling “full package digital immortality.” For what is presented as the resurrected dead is not fully understood, even by those selling it. Can this virtual loved one grow in their understanding and ideas as they may have in life? Can the complexity of an inner world be understood and recreated by a machine? Can such interaction help someone cope? Or are users left to grieve away from community, in an echo-chamber with a digital ghost?
With AI developing so fast, it’d be foolish to make some definitive statement so soon and in such a concrete medium as film. Instead, this documentary captures a moment in which the technology takes off at such a pace that we — its makers and users — struggle to keep up with what it can do, what that means, and how it will impact our world.
AI is a genie let out of the bottle, for better or worse. Eternal You gives us a taste of both, making for an experience that is equal parts enlightening, heartbreaking, and infuriating — much like real grief.
Eternal You was reviewed out of Sundance 2024.