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

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

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.

Martin Pagh Ludvigsen/Goodby Silverstein & Partners


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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.

Martin Pagh Ludvigsen/Goodby Silverstein & Partners

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.”

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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.


The Dalí Museum
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“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.”

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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


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Visitors speak with AI Salvador Dalí via the “lobster phone” at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Martin Pagh Ludvigsen/Goodby Silverstein & Partners

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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

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Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) is pictured in December 1964.

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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 Tapestry has 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.”

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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.”

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From ‘The Sympathizer’ to ‘Past Lives,’ American Audiences Warm to Subtitles

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From ‘The Sympathizer’ to ‘Past Lives,’ American Audiences Warm to Subtitles

The sequence is emblematic of a significant shift in how Asian languages are featured in American film and TV.

Just a few years ago, when his Korean dark comedy “Parasite” won the 2020 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the writer and director Bong Joon Ho ribbed Americans for their aversion to “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.”

Bong Joon Ho and his interpreter, Sharon Choi, at the Golden Globe Awards in 2020.

Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal Media, via Getty Images

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But in 2024, “The Sympathizer” is among a growing number of American works — including the recent prestige films “Minari” (2020), “Past Lives” (2023) and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022); the television epics “Pachinko” (2022) and “Shogun” (2024); and the family-friendly series “Ms. Marvel” (2022) and “American Born Chinese” (2023) — that use Asian languages to bring additional depth and nuance to their stories.

“I don’t think it is just a temporary blip,” said Minjeong Kim, the director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at San Diego State University. “The trend has shifted.”

It’s a startling evolution from how Asian languages have typically appeared on American screens. Don McKellar, the co-creator of “The Sympathizer,” said that after the show’s multilingual writing staff watched the 1978 Vietnam War film “The Deer Hunter,” there was confusion about what language that film’s Vietnamese characters were even speaking.

“No one could understand them,” he said. “They were either Thai speakers who had been given a word or two of Vietnamese or they were just speaking Thai with a ‘Vietnamese’ accent.”

McKellar has seen a shift, though. When he wrote the 1998 film “The Red Violin,” which has dialogue in several languages including German, French and Mandarin, he had to tally up the percentage of English dialogue to reassure studio executives who were nervous about a Western audience’s tolerance for subtitles.

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“It was one of those understood things,” he recalled. But with “The Sympathizer,” which has long stretches in Vietnamese, “I never had to count.”

“The Sympathizer”

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Nowadays, some 50 percent of Americans would prefer to watch videos with subtitles regardless of the language they’re hearing. Videos on social media are increasingly closed-captioned and, as sound mixing becomes more complicated across devices, the near universal accessibility of subtitles — a rarity before the rise of streaming — has made them more of a boon than a barrier.

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The internet’s broad entertainment ecosystem has also diversified the American media palate. “YouTube, social media, TikTok, those things that are really open — people can actually access and be exposed to content in different languages,” Kim said. That means “they might be less reluctant to watch movies or TV shows that have different languages.”

Many experts point to Netflix’s 2021 hit series “Squid Game,” a Korean import, as an early catalyst. The monumental success of the dystopian thriller, which is the platform’s most-watched show, took even the streamer by surprise. “You have a non-English show, a Korean show, that ends up being the biggest show in the world ever,” said Bela Bajaria, the chief content officer for Netflix, whose overall subscriber base is largely outside of the U.S. “We did not see that coming.”

“Squid Game” topped a growing wave of non-English worldwide hits, such as the Spanish “Money Heist” and the French “Lupin.” The success of these projects helped shift the industrywide perception of non-English dialogue: Where it was once seen as a liability, it became an asset — a change that coincided with a rising number of Asian and Asian American filmmakers helming major Hollywood projects.

“Amazon is all over the world and they are trying to tap into international audiences,” said the filmmaker Lulu Wang, whose recent Prime series, “Expats,” takes place in Hong Kong and has portions in Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Punjabi and English. “So the word they kept using was: ‘We see this as a global show for us.’”

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The making of “Expats” was a stark contrast to Wang’s experience pitching her acclaimed 2018 film “The Farewell,” she said. Back then, skeptical executives asked her to relocate the story, which is set primarily in China, to New York and translate a majority of the dialogue from Mandarin into English. Wang refused.

“There was just this constant awareness that we were doing something that was on the periphery and that was in the margins,” she said. “And in order to make it successful, we had to find a way to take it out of the shadows and bring it into the light.”

The market, it seems, has changed. This year’s FX/Hulu adaptation of the James Clavell novel “Shogun,” a heavily subtitled series that includes Japanese and English dialogue, notched one of Disney’s most watched debuts. While much of the show’s political and emotional intrigue is managed through the act of translation between characters, its predecessor, a 1980 series adaptation, was mostly in English and didn’t even bother subtitling its sparse Japanese lines.

Across many films and series about Asians and Asian Americans, language is increasingly used as a world-building tool. On “The Sympathizer,” McKellar said, there was a committee of people across all levels of production that was meticulously tweaking the Vietnamese dialogue.

“The Northern accent and then the Southern accent, they’re vastly, vastly different,” said the show’s star, Hoa Xuande, who plays a spy for the North who is planted in the South. Then, he added, there were prewar and postwar accents that had to be accounted for.

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These finer details of language are, in other words, positive markers of stories told with “authenticity,” that vaguely praiseworthy term that nevertheless is viscerally felt when, for instance, you hear the “Chinglish” patter, a mélange of Mandarin and English, between Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan in an early scene in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Their back-and-forth, dancing seamlessly in and out of English midsentence, is a mode familiar to most Asian Americans — 66 percent of whom speak a language other than English at home.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

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Still, authenticity can be an abstract badge of honor. Multiplicity of language is most interesting when it’s used to progress these stories — to ratchet up tension, to encase or reveal secrets, to create emotional resonance, to reflect or deflect identity.

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One of the most affecting uses of foreign language can be found in the 2023 film “Past Lives,” an Oscar nominee that its star Greta Lee, who plays Nora, said was a story about how to “capture identity through language.”

Nora’s Korean slowly shifts and loosens from the start of the film to the end, Lee said, as she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung. On their first call, “she’s been living in New York for X amount of years, she doesn’t really speak Korean anymore,” Lee explained. But as their connection rekindles and her Korean becomes more fluent, it’s as if Nora is slowly unearthing her past self.

Lee worked with Sharon Choi, who gained recognition as Bong Joon Ho’s interpreter during the international press run for “Parasite.” Rather than being a traditional dialect coach, Choi explored speech patterns with Lee that were crucial to communicating her character’s journey.

“My priority wasn’t getting a particular accent,” Choi said. Instead of focusing on technical proficiency, “I was approaching this language from a storytelling perspective.”

The evolution of Nora’s Korean helps define a progression of playfulness, curiosity and eventually heartbreak as she revisits an old language, an old friend and an old life. These layers of storytelling do not register with English-speaking audiences, but for those who do speak Korean, they add depth to the film.

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“You dream in a language I don’t understand,” Arthur, Nora’s American husband, wistfully tells her at one point about her sleep talking. “It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go.”

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Sean Kingston's Florida Home Raided by Cops, Mom Arrested

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Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan offers a tour of Bethlehem in his new cookbook

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Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan offers a tour of Bethlehem in his new cookbook

Some of the items offered in Fadi Kattan’s new cookbook Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food

Ashley Lima/Hardie Grant


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Some of the items offered in Fadi Kattan's new cookbook Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food

Some of the items offered in Fadi Kattan’s new cookbook Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food

Ashley Lima/Hardie Grant

Chef Fadi Kattan is well aware that it might not be the right time to release a cookbook about Palestinian food – not when people in Gaza are starving.

“But you know my publisher is of Jewish faith,” he told Morning Edition host Leila Fadel. “She said, now the book even has more significance.”

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That’s because his book – Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food – is dedicated to preserving part of a culture that’s been torn apart by decades of displacement and war. It’s a love letter through food to his childhood home in the West Bank.

“I started food tours in Bethlehem, and I would take people along with me to the markets,” he said. “In the book, I really wanted to be able to transmit this to people and say, look, you’re actually coming on a visit of Bethlehem with me through the recipes.”

Chef Fadi Kattan

Chef Fadi Kattan

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Chef Fadi Kattan

Chef Fadi Kattan

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The dishes are reflective of the diversity of Palestinians in Bethlehem and beyond, from a simple fig salad with olive oil and sumac – to the spiced rice and fish favorite sayadieh samak – to a Christmas fruitcake. With the crisis in Gaza, Kattan implores, “Time is running out. We need to preserve those recipes. We need to share them with people.”

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To listen to the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of the page. Below is a recipe from Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food.

LENTIL SOUP

“My mother cooks shorbat adas, a lentil soup, for us as soon as the wind gets chilly in Bethlehem, and often in the days of Lent. Widely regarded as the healthy option to many a fast and as a food of the less fortunate, shorbat adas is in reality the noblest of soups, with its rituals of fresh accompaniments: Palestinian finely chopped salad, radishes, spring onions, and fried bread.”

380 g / 13 ounces red lentils

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

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2 onions, finely chopped

Fadi Kattan's lentil soup

Fadi Kattan’s lentil soup

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Ashley Lima/Hardie Grant

Fadi Kattan's lentil soup

Fadi Kattan’s lentil soup

Ashley Lima/Hardie Grant

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

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2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground ginger 500 ml / 2⅛ cups chicken stock or water

Juice of 2 lemons

2 flatbreads, such as pita, kmaj, or shrak

Green Shatta

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SERVES 6

Combine the lentils with cold water to cover in a bowl.

In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, turmeric, cumin, and ginger and continue to sauté until the onions become translucent, another 3 minutes.

Drain the lentils and add to the pot. Cover with the stock and decrease the heat to medium. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, until the lentils are soft.

Add the lemon juice and blend with a handheld blender until creamy.

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In a small pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Cut the bread into strips and briefly fry in the hot oil, until lightly browned and crisp.

Serve the soup with fried bread on top and a dash of shatta.

The audio version of this story was produced by Milton Guevara. The digital version was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi.

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