You Can Chat With an A.I. Replica of Salvador Dalí – Smithsonian Magazine

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Visitors at the Dalí Museum can pick up a recreation of the artist’s Lobster Telephone (1938) and ask the A.I. replica a question.
The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida

Lobster Telephone (1938) by the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí is exactly what it sounds like: a plaster sculpture of a lobster attached to a real telephone. It’s a Surrealist work, an artistic movement known for its dreamlike imagery and unusual juxtapositions. Dalí is one of the movement’s best-known artists.

Now, when visitors arrive at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, they will find a replica of the famous telephone. They can even pick up the receiver—and talk to a voice on the other end.

The ghost of Dalí isn’t on the line; instead, it is a digital replica of the artist made using artificial intelligence. The interactive experience, called “Ask Dalí,” opened on April 11 in anticipation of the artist’s 120th birthday.

“Hi, I’m Salvador Dalí, and you can ask me anything,” says the A.I. Dalí in a promotional video. “How they brought me here is far beyond my comprehension. All I know is that they used something called a large language model in a recreation of my voice, and here I am.”

Ask Dalí Teaser

In the video, the digital Dalí fields various questions from curious visitors: In The Persistence of Memory (1931), why are the clocks melting? In The Elephants (1948), why are the titular animals’ legs so thin? What’s up with your mustache?

The museum partnered with the creative agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P) to create the A.I., which is trained on old writings and archival audio. According to Artnet, it’s powered by several machine-learning models, including OpenAI’s GPT-4.

“Ask Dalí” isn’t the museum’s first foray into A.I. In 2019, the institution unveiled “Dalí Lives,” which allowed visitors to interact with a digital recreation of the artist on video screens scattered throughout the building. While A.I. technology has come a long way since then, visitors still found the project moving.

“Some people have cried,” Hank Hine, director of the Dalí Museum, told Smithsonian magazine’s Jennifer Billock in 2019. “It has this spiritual impact. If you can see Dalí come alive, then why not believe in resurrection, eternity and your own immortality—and the immortality of those you love. It’s very uplifting.”

Last year, the museum released another A.I. project called “Dream Tapestry,” which generated digital paintings based on visitors’ descriptions of their dreams.

“Dalí was fascinated by the latest tools and technologies of his era and continually explored various artistic media,” says Jeff Goodby, co-founder and co-chairman of GS&P, in a statement from the museum. “‘Ask Dalí’ provides a delightful new way to interact with machine-learning technology. Dalí’s poetic writings, in an imaginative style all his own, are the basis of the training, which provides dynamic and unpredictable answers to visitors’ questions.”

“Ask Dalí” follows several similar innovations at other museums. Earlier this year, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris wrapped up an exhibition that included an A.I. recreation of Vincent van Gogh. Titled “Hello Vincent,” the A.I. program was trained on hundreds of letters and early biographies. The artist was shown on a screen, and visitors asked him questions through a microphone.

Last month, the National WWII Museum in New Orleans opened a show called “Voices From the Front,” which allows visitors to chat with 18 veterans, nurses, home front workers and other Americans who lived through World War II. In response to visitor questions, an A.I. program pulls a relevant answer from extensive pre-recorded interviews and plays it on a large screen.

In contrast, “Ask Dalí” does not feature an image of the artist on a screen. The digital Dalí is simply a voice coming through a lobster phone.

“For years, people have attempted to understand my work, trying to find meaning in the surreal, to make sense of the dreams of a historic genius,” says the A.I. Dalí in the promotional video. “But how can anyone possibly know what is inside the burning mind of Salvador Dalí? No! They simply cannot. They are mere mortal human beings. But now, I can tell you.”

Ask Dalí” is now on view at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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