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#HotDocs21 Review: A.rtificial I.mmortality

April 28, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Director Ann Shin explores the concept of “digital immortality” in A.rtifical I.mmortality, the opening night film of this year’s virtual Hot Docs, a thought-provoking documentary that does a good job of investigating advances in AI from both a technological and personal perspective. Through interviews with scientists and researchers who are at the forefront of this, Shin examines the potential, both good and bad, of technology inevitably advancing to the point of allowing us to upload our minds into computers to live on after we die.

The journey is inspired by her father, who is in a nursing home and in the early stages of dementia, prompting the Toronto-based filmmaker to start asking questions about how our memories are stored, and if it’s possible for them to live on beyond us. The endgame for this is the theoretically possible but still undeveloped ability to upload our entire consciousness onto a digital drive and transfer it it into an robot body, which is the goal of the transhumanist movement.

But the discussions in Shin’s film focus more on already viable technologies that allow us to essentially live on through the “mindfiles” that are created through the data that we post online. Shin embarks upon creating an AI avatar of herself, programming this digital clone with her own memories and experiences to be able to personally talk to her daughters. The self-help guru Deepak Chopra has already done this, creating a “Digital Deepak” that is able to answer questions and give advice, leading to one of the more eery moments in the film when Shin “interviews” him on an iPad.

Questions are raised, such as how will this effect the grieving process if our loved ones are able to interact with digital versions of us instead of just looking through photo albums once we are gone? And, on an even bigger scale, what are the spiritual implications of this, with many religions built around the belief in a natural afterlife? We learn that religious movements have now sprung up around the tenets of transhumanism, including the Church of Perpetual Life in Hollywood, Florida.

Shin interviews Lincoln Cannon from the Christian Transhumanist Association, who envisions a future where “death is optional,” as well as transhumanist pastor Gabriel Rothblatt. Rothblatt is part of the quasi-religious Terasem Movement, which is fighting against “involuntary death” and believes that our souls are simply capturable data. Shin also shows advancements in robotics, including the humanoid robots that are being built by Hiroshi Ishiguro at Osaka University in Japan.

The moral and ethical implications of full transcendence between humans and machines are some of the biggest questions of our time, and Shin doesn’t answer all of them. But her film doesn’t really need to, either. At 74 minutes, A.rtifical I.mmortality does a good job of introducing these questions, with the emotionally compelling through-line of Shin exploring them from a personal perspective. The film ends on a very touching note about the power of memory and human connection, that is especially poignant considering it was filmed during the pandemic.

A.rtificial I.mmortality will be available from April 29th at 10:00 AM until May 9th. Tickets and more information can be found right here.

There will be a live opening night Q&A on April 29th at 7:30 PM, with special guests including Ann Shin and Dr. Deepak Chopra.

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