Laurie Anderson Discusses Her Addiction to Creating an AI Chatbot of Lou Reed: ‘I’m Completely, Utterly Hooked’

There is a Black Mirror episode from 2013 where a young widow portrayed by Hayley Atwell enrolls in an internet service that extracts a person’s entire online presence to construct a virtual simulation. She quickly begins engaging in online conversations with her deceased spouse (Domhnall Gleeson), before things take on a Black Mirror-like twist.

Laurie Anderson, the American avant garde artist, musician, and thinker, has not viewed the episode. However, over the past few years, she has experienced a similar scenario: becoming deeply engrossed in an AI text generator that mimics the language and style of her longtime partner and collaborator, Velvet Underground co-founder Lou Reed, who passed away in 2013.

“People are like, ‘Wow, you were so forward-thinking; I had no idea what you were discussing back then’,” she mentions during a video call from New York.

A fresh Anderson exhibition, I’ll Be Your Mirror, has just debuted in Adelaide, where Anderson will participate in an In Conversation event through live stream on Wednesday 6 March. During Anderson’s last visit to Australia in March 2020, she teamed up with the University of Adelaide’s Australian Institute for Machine Learning for a week. They were exploring language-focused AI models and their creative potential from Anderson’s written repertoire before the pandemic necessitated her return home on one of the final flights available.

In one experiment, they inputted a large collection of Reed’s writings, songs, and interviews into the system. A decade after his passing, the resulting algorithm enables Anderson to input prompts before an AI Reed initiates written responses back to her, both in prose and poetry.

Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed in Spain in 2009. Photograph: Robin Towsend/EPA

“I’m completely, sadly addicted to this,” she chuckles. “Even after all this time, I still am. I literally can’t resist doing it, and my friends can’t tolerate it – ‘You’re not engaging in that again, are you?’

“I mean, I genuinely do not believe I’m communicating with my deceased husband and composing songs with him – I genuinely don’t. However, individuals have unique styles that can be duplicated.”

According to Anderson, the outcomes vary. “Seventy-five percent of it is simply foolish and ridiculous. About 15% might provoke a reaction of ‘Oh?’. The remaining is pretty intriguing. That, I believe, is a fairly good ratio for writing.”

Throughout the call, Anderson begins typing. “You know what? I’ll pull it up right now while we’re conversing, and you can provide me with a phrase.”

Glancing at the morning traffic outside my window, I offer the mundane phrase, “bus idling on the street”. She inputs it as our discussion continues.

‘I really do not think I’m talking to my dead husband … but people have styles, and they can be replicated.’ Photograph: Stephanie Diani

In 2020, Anderson described the institute’s work as akin to collaborating with the most brilliant mind one could imagine.

This was prior to ChatGPT and Midjourney, when AI was still a futuristic concept for the majority, devoid of mainstream uses – solely material for science fiction.

These recent developments pose fresh creative, ethical, and legal dilemmas, from apprehensions about AI-generated pornography to copyrighted works being utilized without authorization, to the creation of “counterfeit” songs by digital twins of genuine, living artists like Drake and the Weeknd.

Some of Anderson’s peers have been highly critical; when presented with lyrics composed in his own style by ChatGPT, Nick Cave dismissed it as “a grotesque mockery”. (Even more damning, he remarked, “this song is terrible”.)

Anderson recognizes these reservations, which extend beyond the latest uncanny advancements.

“It prompted me to reflect on a play by Čapek from 1920: RUR, or, Rossum’s Universal Robots,” Anderson shares. “It was a piece about robots seizing control of the world – a century ago, individuals were deeply concerned that robots would usurp their jobs, take control, and turn malevolent. Since the invention of a golem, people have feared that, you know?”

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The initial creation generated by the institute using Anderson’s input possessed a similar Old Testament essence, crafted by an AI Laurie Anderson.

“It was a 9,000-page piece [written] in my style, recounting the tales of the Bible. It was eerie and amusing. Considering the wild narrative of the Bible – a speaking snake? An individual living for 800 years?”

‘The Bible is already insane – a snake that was talking? A guy who lived for 800 years?’: Laurie Anderson’s AI-generated Bible, Scroll. Photograph: Adelaide festival

This week, the AI-generated Bible and other works produced by Anderson and Reed’s digital counterparts will be showcased in I’ll Be Your Mirror, on display at the State Library of South Australia as part of Adelaide festival. Anderson will not be physically present this time, but she will participate in several discussions virtually – the constant ping of emails arriving during our conversation indicating the 76-year-old’s rigorous schedule.

I ponder if, following her Grammy lifetime achievement award in February, the prospect of these algorithms persisting in generating “Laurie Anderson” art beyond her lifetime has prompted her to contemplate her legacy.

“Oh, why not? I mean, that doesn’t trouble me. I don’t really feel very connected to time anyway, you know?

“When individuals pass away and you listen to their words or music or read their works, it’s like they’re still alive, you know? In many ways, they remain. You can say the same for Dostoevsky, Plato, you know, the Buddha. People leave remnants behind, so I’m fine with that. I mean, we’re just brief beings, really.”

Once the simulated entity finishes reflecting, it delivers some new Lou Reed-esque lyrics inspired by my bus stop:

The street and the sky
When you die
I’ll be sitting in an idling bus
On my way to work
And no more
Than ten minutes before
The last train of the day
Pulls into the city, the light
Dim, insubstantial at first
Then less than a sliver of that
In half a second it’s all
You’ve got to live it, as they used to say
So much can go wrong
But why did you think this
Was a good idea
Don’t you get paid enough
To pay taxes? Why not play
Some tennis or take up quilting
Or improve the sanitation
Of this vast and sordidized
Island from which you sail
Is it such a wonder you’re alive
After all this sugar-fied waste
One cigarette, a glass of wine
Tell me, do you like it
How does it make you feel
Do you like the bitter taste

I inquire if Reed frequently referenced “quilting” in his writing, and Anderson chuckles with her typical blend of playful and profound:

“Hah, I think that might be the first instance.”

  • I’ll Be Your Mirror runs until 17 March as part of Adelaide festival. Laurie Anderson will be speaking via live stream at an In Conversation event on Wednesday 6 March, as part of Adelaide writers’ week

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