I don’t know about you, but the first item on my list of New Year’s resolutions, as always, is to attain eternal life. The prospects this year look better than ever, at least according to two documentaries.
Where some see rampant technological progress as a threat that might end the human race as we know it, Ann Shin’s “A.rtificial I.mmortality” (2021) suggests that it might provide the means to transcend death.
Dismayed about her father’s advancing dementia, Shin investigates how the latest advances in robotics and artificial intelligence might be able to preserve an individual’s consciousness — even beyond the grave.
She pays a call on Swami G, a pastor in the church of Terasem, a Transhumanist sect that believes in using technology to expand the limits of human life. His motto is “Make Eternity Great Again” and he believes the soul has the potential to be immortal if a person’s data are collected and stored in a “mind file.” “Facebook has your mind file, Amazon has your mind file, Google, the N[ational] S[ecurity] A[gency],” he says. “Everyone has your mind file except for you.”
But how to transfer this mind file into some receptacle that will contain it forever? Scientists have developed 3-D avatars that can take on a person’s bodily form, preserve their knowledge, memories, and all their individual characteristics, and enable them to communicate with the living. Deepak Chopra, the “spiritual guru,” whose books have sold millions of copies, now has a virtual, digital 3-D clone that has been boning up on his oeuvre, his memories, and the ephemera of his life. It so resembles the original Deepak Chopra that it elicits gasps from Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa when it speaks on their talk show “Live! with Kelly and Michael.” “I am training to serve as your infinite well-being guide,” the avatar says.
You have been warned.
Shin volunteers to have a similar avatar made of herself. “Eww,” she says when she sees the work in progress. Maybe this is what Freud was talking about in his essay on the uncanny.
Meanwhile, in Japan, scientists have been devising humanoid robots that look like the androids in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I: Artificial Intelligence” (2001) . One of the scientists poses next to a replica of himself that he has created, and the resemblance is, well, uncanny. Creepier still are the “organoids,” spawned in petri dishes, brain tissue grown from stem cells. When hooked up with a spiderlike robot, these brainlets can make it walk — haltingly at first, but then with increasingly sinister purpose.
Shin demonstrates an eclectic, inventive style. She applies artful animation to illustrate concepts, juxtaposes images artfully, and includes germane snippets from movies. Like the scene in “Blade Runner” (1982) in which the android played by Rutger Hauer delivers the famous soliloquy that ends, “All those moments will be lost in time … like tears in rain. … Time to die.”
“A.rtificial I.mmortality” can be streamed via Syndicado on Apple TV, Google TV, InDemand, and Vudu, beginning Jan. 11. Go to www.artificialimmortality.ca.
Perhaps you don’t need to rely on the latest A.I. technology to attain immortality. The scientists in Frauke Sandig and Eric Black’s “Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness” (2021) don’t try to reconstruct a mind artificially to uncover its secrets. They examine the evidence that exists, physical and spiritual, in hopes of learning how consciousness works — and how it can be extended.
With his team of 300 researchers, Christof Koch, one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists and head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, in Seattle, examines minute slices of brain tissue under an electron microscope. But he doubts he will unravel the mystery of consciousness by studying the hardware. “What is it about this piece of gray goo that gives rise to the feeling of love?” he asks. He recalls once taking magic mushrooms and comprehending “the beating heart of existence.” Later he could not explain what he experienced. “It is ineffable,” he says. But was the perception real or just a pleasurable figment conjured up by the gray goo? Is there a difference?
Molecular biologist and Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard believes that looking outward at phenomena, as is the practice of most Western science, won’t answer such questions. The key to the mystery lies within, the pure awareness that is the essence of reality. Psychedelic drugs are unnecessary — meditation and the stripping away of the self and ego can achieve this. But is this eternal life or the end of individual existence?
Monica Gagliano, a biologist and professor at the University of Sydney, has applied scrupulous scientific methods to prove the seemingly unscientific fact that plants are conscious entities that hear, see, communicate, learn, remember, and feel pain. They communicate in an interconnected network of consciousness. Perhaps people are part of that network, and all sentient beings. But wouldn’t this fact mean that even a vegan diet causes pain? What could you eat for lunch?
Like Koch, Gagliano thinks that psychedelics can be a tool in her research. With the Mayan healer Josefa Kirvin Kulix, she visits a remote Mexican village where the culture revolves around the hallucinogenic peyote cactus. Gagliano participates in a peyote ceremony in which the villagers chant before a fire. The hypnotic cadence seems to lull her into a state of serenity. But when the villagers drag in a bull and cut its throat she covers her eyes in anguish.
“Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness” can be streamed on demand beginning on Jan. 7. Go to aware-film.com.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.