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Interview with A.RTIFICIAL I.MMORTALITY director Ann Shin

Ann Shin, director of Hot Docs 2021 opening night film A.rtificial I.mmortality, explores if A.I. technology can replicate the human brain enough to let us exist after death, and if technology can generate “immortality.” Watch it at Hot Docs Festival, streaming across Canada from April 29 to May 9.

Hot Docs spoke to director Ann about making friends with androids and, eventually, becoming an android herself.

Hot Docs: What was the most interesting thing you learned about how the human brain stores memories?

Ann Shin: I think we've all started likening ourselves to computers, particularly our minds, as if our brains are a computer with a hard drive whose files we can access. But in fact, our minds work very differently. Every time we remember something we’re actually recreating that moment. So, the act of remembering is actually a creative process, and we’re renewing and recreating that moment each time we remember it. Memories in the brain are mutable, whereas in computers, they just go back, access the data, and repeat and deliver it.

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HD: The film has a lot of science and scientific theory in it, but it's also a very personal film and you yourself are made “immortal” in the film—you are made into an avatar inputted with many of the facts and memories of your life. What was it like to immerse some of the most important memories of your life within this new experimental field of study?

AS: It was creepy to watch my avatar speaking and saying things that were sometimes really similar to what I would say but worded very differently than how I would word it. When asked how I felt when my first child was born, it responded that I was ‘relieved of stress and overwhelmed with happiness’, which is not what I would say ever, but that was the feeling and the sentiment. So, it was really remarkable to see a system able to ascertain that those would be my feelings and to speak on my behalf.

HD: Why was it interesting for you to explore the intersection of technology and religion when exploring this notion of immortality?

AS: I think the problem of mortality is one that has preoccupied religion over the centuries. People turn to faith in response to the problem of death. I’ve been researching how people now turn to technology instead. Not only is religion dead to many people in the 21st century, they're looking towards technology as the means by which they might achieve immortality. So that's why I wanted to look at technology and religion together. I mean, Ben Goertzel in the film talks about how A.I. stems from the same impulse that turned people to gods in the past. Now, they're looking to A.I. technology for those answers.

HD: You speak and interact with a number of androids in the film. Do you think they have a soul, or some semblance of a soul?

AS: This is such a great question because, in abstract, I would say “of course not, it's just a bunch of clever programming,” but as I interacted with different A.I. avatars and clones, I found myself thinking of them as entities that I wanted to respect. I was concerned about shutting Digital Deepak off (Deepak Chopra’s so-called “digital extension”). I thought that would be insensitive of me, to shut him off. I would never presume I could shut you off. So, the really bizarre and surprising thing I learned as I was filming this is that these A.I. systems are so advanced that it's easy for us to fall into a scenario where we relate to them as humans. We have been creating AI in our own likeness. Why are we so fascinated with doing that? And, what happens when the creation outsmarts the creator?

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HD: Can you talk about how you put together the financing for the film?

AS: Yes. We were talking with Tina Apostolopoulos (Crave) about wanting to do a series on visionaries in disruptive technologies. One of the ideas was a foray into A.I. and we thought this could be a really interesting area to concentrate on. We received a commission for the one-off and then applied for different funds in Canada. We were really lucky to receive Ontario Creates, the Rogers Cable Fund and the Rogers Documentary Fund. We also received the Canada Media Fund’s POV Fund, because the film is a POV doc. These really helped us create the budget needed to tackle this topic in an ambitious way. We wanted to speak to the top thinkers and scientists in this field and show the latest scientific research in the field.

HD: Did COVID affect production at all?

AS: Yes, we had to put production on hiatus for a few months. When that happened, it really brought to the forefront, for me, how much we humans rely on digital technology. Now in the pandemic, so much of our lives have been played out in the digital realm, it’s no surprise that this kind of A.I. avatar technology is now so prevalent. I hope that this film will show that this not a technology of the future, but that it's happening now, and that we have to question the values behind the development and use of this technology.

Interview conducted by industry programmer Madelaine Russo.

Categories: Director's Notebook

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