The machine sat next to a deli counter, towering over stacked cardboard boxes near the entrance to the Iconic Magazines store in SoHo. It was the height of a floor-standing washer-dryer, with black buttons, rows of blinking lights, and indicators labeled with celestial bodies—”sun,” “moon,” and the eight planets—on the front of its white façade.
“It could be something from NASA,” said Tim Wiedmann, a 27-year-old German student who visited the store on a Wednesday night in June.
As Mr. Wiedmann stood in front of the machine, his head-up display prompted him to “ask the stars.” Using a knob, he went through about 100 questions. Among them: How can I improve at my job? Should I leave New York? Should I start a cult?
After choosing a question, Mr. Wiedmann entered his date, time, and place of birth. The screen displayed a message that read, in part: “All answers are based on astrological calculations.” The machine, using a built-in camera, took the photo of him. Moments later, he spat out a piece of paper containing the grainy portrait of him and an answer to his question.
“It’s like there’s someone there,” said Mr. Wiedmann, who was one of many who came to use the machine that night. At times, lines began to snake through the store as people waited their turn. Many visitors said they had heard about the machine on TikTok, including two 19-year-old students.
“I asked for my red flags,” one of the students said of the question he chose, before the other student read the machine’s printed answer out loud.
She said: “Your red flags include a tendency to set high expectations and a fear of conflict. Her placement on Jupiter and Saturn suggests a need for perfectionism and a fear of rejection. By avoiding conflict, you can limit your potential for growth and meaningful connections. Remember, conflict is an inherent part of intimacy. Practice it with compassion and let go of unrealistic expectations.”
Like most of the people who used the machine that night, neither he nor she was initially aware that their responses were generated using artificial intelligence, including ChatGPT and GPT-3.
The machine was developed by Co-Star, a technology company with an astrology app that uses artificial intelligence to generate readings. It’s going to be at Iconic Magazines for most of the summer, then moving to Los Angeles later this year.
Astrologers for centuries have referred to the movement and positions of the planets and other celestial bodies to inform readings and horoscopes. Co-Star follows similar methods, but its daily readings are prepared by AI that pulls text from a database written for the app by a team of astrologers and poets.
The machine, which was free to use, was created to promote Co-Star’s new in-app service, Embrace the Void, which starts at around $1. The service works much like a machine: Users can ask open-ended questions not normally addressed in the app’s astrology readings, and receive AI-generated answers using Co-Star’s prepared-text database.
Banu Guler, 35, the founder of Co-Star, named a variety of aesthetic inspirations for the machine, including Soviet-era computers, gadgets used by NASA, photo booths, and vending and washing machines. He was also influenced by the Zoltar fortune-telling machines that were once common attractions on boardwalks and arcades, he said.
“The best part is you get your little read,” Ms. Guler said of the Zoltar machines. “And then you put your reading on your fridge, or in your book, or in your journal, or it just lurks in the bottom of your bag for months, if that’s me.”
“Even though you know it’s trash, it’s special trash,” he added, flashing a smile.
Before starting Co-Star in 2017, Ms. Guler worked in art sales. She said that back then she taught herself how to code AI that she could predict how certain factors, like the weather on an auction date, might influence the sale price of a work of art. She later drew on what she had learned about AI to develop Co-Star.
“It was like, how can this fit into astrology?” she said.
“Astrology is not a perfect science, but there is no such thing as a perfect science either, which I am not saying in an anti-scientific way,” added Ms Guler. “I don’t think science is perfect, and I don’t think anything else is perfect, because humans are imperfect. And that’s great. Like, genuinely, it’s beautiful.”
Vijender Sharma, a 35-year-old astrologer in northern India who specializes in Vedic astrology, said he has used software to prepare the readings. He said that because astrology was informed by science, as long as the AI was trained with the proper knowledge, he saw no harm in using the technology.
Susan Miller, a New York astrologer who has written horoscopes for decades, was more skeptical. “AI is exciting for things like splitting atoms,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t rely on such technology in a practice that often deals with human emotions. “Machines make mistakes,” Miller said. “And the person who gets the answer can walk around with that wrong answer in their head forever.”
After checking out the Co-Star machine in the magazine store, Nisarga Kadam, 23, who works in fintech in New York, was also skeptical of its AI-generated responses.
“It’s a lot of words trained together,” Ms Kadam said. “It is not personal”.
Anna Jonska, 26, a video director in New York, felt otherwise. Ms Jonska said that she is not the biggest fan of astrology and that the machine’s use of AI made her trust it even more.
“I would be more inclined to believe that an old lady bent over a crystal ball is lying to me than a computer,” he said.