‘Eternal You’: A Horrifying Doc About AI Companies Recreating the Dead

Eternal You, a new documentary premiering at Sundance about the nauseating new world of digital afterlife technology, opens on a woman, Christi Angel, staring into a computer screen. She’s messaging with a dead loved one and tears are streaming down her face.

“This experience… It was creepy,” she says. “There were things that scared me. And a lot of stuff I didn’t want to hear [and] I wasn’t prepared to hear.”

We soon learn that Angel — quite the name, given this otherworldly endeavor — is a New Yorker who’s been using the program Project December, which allows users to speak with virtual approximations of their dead loved ones via an AI chatbot that simulates their ways of speaking and thinking, to convene with Cameroun, her first love. But when she asks Cameroun where he is, Cameroun responds that he’s “in hell” surrounded by addicts. Next, he’s “haunting a treatment center.”

“And then he said, ‘I’ll haunt you.’ And I just pushed the computer back because that scared me,” recalls Angel.

When Jason Rohrer, the founder of Project December, is asked about this disturbing episode, he shrugs it off. He’s not responsibility for the technology he’s unleashed, he says, while admitting he doesn’t even fully grasp how it works.

“I am also interested in the spookier aspect of this,” he admits. “When I read a transcript like that and it gives me goosebumps, I like goosebumps.”

Filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck have crafted a sprawling portrait of the emerging business that is digital afterlife technology, interviewing everyone from tech founders and users to psychologists and AI ethicists to examine whether there are any potential benefits to it related to helping human beings process grief, and of course, the potential downsides.

With popular AI programs like ChatGPT creating “thanobots” made up of the digital communications of loved ones that allow you to talk to them after they’ve left this mortal coil, and Microsoft and Amazon filing patents for AI-fueled digital afterlife services, it’s important that we assess this technology before it’s too late.


“These large language models are taking the history of the internet, throwing in scanned books, archives, and kind of modeling language and word frequency and syntax — just the way we speak and the likelihood that we might speak,” explains tech critic Sara M. Watson. “So, imagine that you’re texting your deceased relative and asking, ‘How was your weekend?’ The system is going to go back and imagine how every single person in the entire history of the world has talked about weekends and filter that through how this deceased relative has previously talked about weekends to give you the output of what that person might have said if they were still alive.”  

We meet Joshua Barbeau, a young man in Ontario, Canada, who’s shattered by the tragic loss of his girlfriend, Jessica.

“The hardest thing I had to do in my life was stand there in that room full of people who loved her and watch as they turned off the machines keeping her alive,” he recalls. “I held her hand as she died.”

So, he started communicating with her using Project December, and the first conversation he had with the simulation of Jessica lasted all night.

“It really felt like a gift,” he maintains. “Like a weight had been lifted that I’d been carrying for a long time.”

He adds, “Some people thought that what I did was unhealthy — that this is not grieving, this is holding on to the past and refusing to move forward… We have a very unhealthy relationship with grief. It’s something we treat as taboo. Everyone experiences it, yet nobody’s allowed to talk about it in a public setting.”

Stephenie Oney, a Detroit native, uses the program HereAfterAI to communicate with her dead parents — much to the confusion and dismay of her family.

“I feel that sometimes technology is wonderful, but I don’t want to play God,” offers Patricia, the sister of Stephenie’s late father. “And I think that your father, Bill, is in heaven, peaceful. I don’t want his soul — or any part of him — to be mimicked by technology. I feel that sometimes we could go too far with technology. I would love to just remember him as a person that was wonderful.”

We learn that all of the film’s subjects are holding on to some form of guilt over their loved one’s passing, from not taking the time to answer the last text message they sent to not being able to save them.  

In a particularly upsetting vignette, a grieving mother in Korea, Jang Ji-sung, meets with a digital recreation of her dead young daughter, Na-yeon, in VR — and the footage is broadcast as a television special.

We learn that all of the film’s subjects are holding on to some form of guilt over their loved one’s passing, from not taking the time to answer the last text message they sent or not being able to save them.  

Tech is becoming “increasingly immersive” and it hasn’t been rigorously tested enough before being released to market, warns digital researcher Carl Öhman in the film. It’s leading to “an increasingly morbid” digital afterlife industry that uses people’s digital footprints in an attempt to sell “digital immortality” to people.

And when we meet the founders of these digital afterlife businesses in the film, you can see why there’s cause for serious concern. There is Mark Sagar, co-founder of Soul Machines, who’s created a digital avatar of his own newborn baby that he spends time training instead of, you know, spending time with his actual baby. Justin Harrison, the founder of the digital afterlife start-up YOV, says his company’s process can involve recording all your conversations with your loved one while they’re still alive in order to recreate their conversational patterns after they’ve passed. But Harrison, whose passion for YOV cost him his wife and his home, seems far more concerned with cheating death than helping others come to terms with their grief, as well as the moral and ethical implications of what he’s pursuing. In fact, all of these male founders seem mostly enamored with their tech creations (humans, less so).

One of Eternal You’s most telling sequences sees Rohrer, the Project December founder, chuckling as he looks over chat logs from an unsatisfied user whose “dead father” cursed her off when she called him a scam, repeatedly labeling her a “fucking bitch.”

Plus, who owns the data? And what will these companies do with avatars of your dead loves ones after you die?

“I have very little faith in tech companies kind of keeping their promises,” reasons Watson. “I just have no control over where I might end up? Imagine all of the different people who could have a claim to continuing my virtual self? My brain, the way I think, the way I interpret things — to trust a company to manage that in perpetuity feels just impossible to me.”

{Categories} _Category: Applications,_Category: Inspiration,*ALL*{/Categories}
{Author}Marlow Stern{/Author}
{Keywords}TV & Movies,TV & Movies Reviews,AI,Amazon,Artificial intelligence,ChatGPT,Death,Documentary,Grief,mental health,Microsoft,Sundance Film Festival,technology,trauma{/Keywords}
{Source}Rolling Stone{/Source}

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