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An AI Salvador Dalí will answer any question when called on his famous 'lobster phone'

<em>Ask Dalí</em> at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., allows visitors talk to the famous surrealist artist via an AI-generated version of his voice.
Martin Pagh Ludvigsen/Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Ask Dalí at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., allows visitors talk to the famous surrealist artist via an AI-generated version of his voice.

Updated April 21, 2024 at 1:08 PM ET

Salvador Dalí was known for his surreal artworks featuring melting clocks and craggy desert backgrounds, his eccentric behaviors like driving a car packed to the roof with cauliflower, and his gravity-defying mustache.

He was also known for answering questions in cryptic ways. In 1966, when an interviewer with the CBC asked the artist if he thought he was crazy, Dalí's response was: "Dalí is almost crazy. But the only difference between crazy people and Dalí is Dalí is not crazy."

Now, visitors to the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., have the opportunity to ask any question they like of the famed surrealist artist who died in 1989.

Ask Dalí, a new installation based on a copy of Dalí's iconic Lobster Telephone sculpture, allows visitors to pick up the crustacean-shaped receiver, ask a question, and hear Dalí's response. The artist's voice, speaking in heavily-accented English, is made possible through generative artificial intelligence.

"Why are the clocks melting?" is an example of one question someone asks in a promotional reel for the installation, which opened on April 11. "My dear questioner! Think not of the clocks as merely melting. Picture them as a vast dream."

Bringing Dalí's voice to life through AI

According to Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the San Francisco-based ad agency that collaborated on the installation with the Dalí Museum, the artist's AI voice was trained on voice samples taken from archival interviews Dalí did in English over his career. (He spoke four languages — Catalan, Spanish, French and English — sometimes interchangeably.)

The underlying model is OpenAI's GPT-4. Because GPT-4 is trained on almost all publicly available text, this model includes extensive information about Dalí — an artist with a vast presence on the internet. The Dalí Museum also selected English translations of Dalí's writings in other languages, including his Mystical Manifesto, Diary of a Genius and The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí.

"These have formed the basis of Dalí's words and tone of voice through careful prompt engineering, refining and testing," said Martin Pagh Ludvigsen, Goodby Silverstein & Partners' director of creative technology & AI, in an email to NPR.

Visitors speak with AI Salvador Dalí via the "lobster phone" at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla.
/ Martin Pagh Ludvigsen/Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Martin Pagh Ludvigsen/Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Visitors speak with AI Salvador Dalí via the "lobster phone" at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Ludvigsen said the AI Dalí has answered more than 3,000 questions so far. "People ask big questions about life, love and death from Dalí," Ludvigsen said, adding he is able to monitor the AI's answers, but not the visitors' specific questions. The AI "frequently speaks of [Dalí's] wife Gala when discussing love — 'My marriage to Gala was an exquisite tapestry of love, beyond the binaries of mortal understanding,' just popped up in the tool."

Ludvigsen said the AI has also responded to questions about why humans kill animals: "A question soaked in existential dread yet trivial in the grand canvas of the cosmos. We kill animals perhaps because we are imprisoned in a labyrinth of primal instincts and modern desires, a surreal dance of survival and supremacy."

On why there is so much darkness in the world: "Challenge the universe with deeper queries, like why do shadows celebrate the sun? Shadows celebrate the sun because they are the silent music of light's absence. Each shadow is a dark fingerprint of the universe, revealing the hidden contours of time and space."

Another frequent topic, according to Ludvigsen, is the Lobster Telephone itself. Dalí fashioned at least 10 of the objects in the 1930s. The work is constructed out of an old-fashioned rotary telephone and a plaster lobster. Some versions are all in white — the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg owns one of these — while others, like the one at The Tate in London, feature a black phone with a red lobster.

From Dalí to DALL-E

Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is pictured in December 1964.
Terry Fincher / Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is pictured in December 1964.

This is the latest in an string of tech-infused installations at the Dalí museum. Beginning in 2019, the AI installation Dalí Lives allowed visitors to interact with Dalí's likeness on a series of screens throughout the museum. Since last year, the interactive installation Dream Tapestryhas allowed visitors to create original digital paintings from a text description of a dream.

Dalí scholar Elliott King, an associate professor of art history at Washington and Lee University who was not involved with the museum's exhibit, said he thought Dalí would have liked this AI-based interpretation of his voice and work, noting that the popular AI image generator DALL-E is in part inspired by the artist's name. "He was so interested in scientific advancements," King said. "I think that he would have been really tickled by people talking into this lobster phone."

King said he thought the AI-generated voice worked well compared to the museum's previous efforts. "It does sound much more like Dalí than anything that I've heard up until now," King said. "His voice is so unusual. He had a very particular way of speaking where he would exaggerate certain words."

But King said some of the AI answers did not sound authentic to Dalí's creative language. King cited the "Why are the clocks melting?" question, and its response, "Picture them as a vast dream," as an example. "That's a little bit vague," King said. "He's never just going to say something nearly so mundane. It's always going to be much more action-packed, much more exciting than just the regular thing that somebody might say."

(After this article was published, Ludvigsen said in an email that the AI's answer to the "melting clocks" question in the teaser video is not the full answer the AI gave and was from an early version of the AI that has since been refined.)

King said that in Dalí's 1934 book The Conquest of the Irrational, Dalí describes the melting timepieces as "the soft, extravagant, solitary paranoiac-critical Camembert of time and space." "To be fair, Dalí altered his interpretations of the soft clocks many times throughout his life," King said. "In the 1950s, they were atomic; in the 1960s, they were prognosticators of DNA. But saying they are part of a 'vast dream' almost sounds too clear."

King also said Dalí would never use the word "hi" when introducing himself, which is what the AI model does when the museum-goer picks up the lobster phone to speak to the AI surrealist. "That word sounds so odd coming out of his voice," King said. "He always said, "Bonjour!" — always the French — even to say goodbye."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.